I had just submitted my application form for the SSC Examination, when ‘a four feet one inch cat-eyed Da Vinci’ Kalyani Pal, the Bangla teacher, declared that I would not be able to take the exam. What was the reason? “You are underage, you cannot take the exam at fourteen; you have to be fifteen.” But how was I supposed to acquire a whole year? Disappointed, I returned home and informed everyone that I wouldn’t be able to take the exam that year. Why not? I was underage. After much deliberation Ma said “I have heard that many things can’t be done because one is too old for them, you can’t join the University or you can’t get jobs.” Maybe so, but for the SSC the reverse is true. If you are underage, sit at home and grow old. Come back to take the exam when you are fifteen. Towards dusk, Ma read the Esha Namaz and read two parts of the special sixth prayer known as the Nafal Namaz as well, bowing her head at the darbar of Allah. She informed the Almighty, in tears, that her daughter was not being able to take her exams. However, she was sure that if Allah chose, He could deliver her daughter from this terrible eligibility problem; enable her to not only take the exam but also to pass successfully.
I do not know to what extent Allah came to my rescue, but Baba certainly did. He went to my school the very next day and scratching out the year 1962 from the SSC form, he wrote 1961. He told me that from now on I had better glue myself to the study desk and chair. I was to stop all gossip and mischief and concentrate fully on my studies so that I passed my SSC exam in the First Division with four Distinctions. If I didn’t, he would throw me out of the house he had said without mincing words.
My age had been increased by a year. A child, I would be taking the exam with elders. I was overjoyed. Pricking my balloon of joy Dada said, “Who said you were born in 1961?”
“Rubbish. Baba had lowered your age.”
“That means I was actually born in 1961?”
“Not 1961, you
were born in 1960. I remember seeing the parade at the Circuit House on 14th
Chhotda got up, and tightening the knot on his lungi and exposing his black gums, added, “What are you saying Dada. How could she have been born in 1960? She was born in 1959.”
I was crushed. I went to Ma and demanded, “Tell me my real date of birth, will you!” Ma said, “You were born on the twelfth day of Rabi-ul-awal , the third month of the Muslim calendar , I don’t recall the year.”
“All this Rabi-ul-awal doesn’t work at school. Tell me the English year. The date.”
“Can one remember years and dates after so long? Ask your father. He might.”
There were two birth dates, Dada’s and Chhotda’s, written on the first page of Baba’s Anatomy book. There was no trace of Yasmin’s and my birth dates or years in any corner of any one of the twelve hundred pages of the book. In fact, they could not be found on any scrap of paper in the house. Ma was born on Id, one of the Chhota Ids. Which year? That was not known. Till today, no one has had the courage to question Baba about the date or year of his birth. Most worried, I was about to spend the entire day calculating anyone and everyone’s ages. Get Ma’s age, by adding twelve years to Dada’s age and get mine by subtracting ten, but Ma said “Leave all this and study. Years flow by like water. It seems just a few days ago that I tied my hair into banana shaped plaits and ran to school, and today my children are passing their BAs and MAs.”
Ma may not have been worried about anybody’s age but I was. I asked any khala or mama from Nanibari visiting us at Aubokash whether they knew the year of my birth. No one did. No one remembered. I confronted Nani when I visited her. Spitting a mouthful of paan juice into a spittoon, she said “Felu was born in the month of Shravan, you were born the same year in the month of Kartik.
“Same year was which year?”
“Who keeps track of which year who was born! Kids have been born every year in this house. If there had been only one or two, one could have calculated years and dates.”
I became obsessed with as insignificant a thing as the date of birth. The matter induced a mood of despondency amongst people both at Aubokash and at Nanibari. Nani remembered that on the day that I was born, Koi fish spawn were cast into the pond in her house. Runu khala remembered that Tutu mama had been running between his room and the toilet that day, and had slipped and fallen with a thud on the stairs, but she couldn’t recall which year that was. Hashem mama remembered picking up four golden frogs from the courtyard and dropping them into the well, but he didn’t have a clue about the date or the year.
I had never before
felt this keen desire to know my year of birth. Baba had substituted 61 for 62,
ensuring that I took the exams. No one could complain about my being underage.
I was happy. I could experience the joy of studying in right earnest. But my
mind remained occupied with the unknown age factor. It was as if my age was a
person standing miles away from me. Someone whom I was always about to meet,
but never did, although the meeting was imperative. When I had enrolled at the
Ma came and sat on the verandah. Since I did not like Jori’s mother’s answer about being nineteen, I asked Ma about her age.
“She should be at least forty or forty-two, could even be forty-five”, Ma said, looking askance at Jori’s Ma’s loose breasts hanging from her limp body.
“How old is Jori, Jori’s Ma?”
To tell us Jori’s age her mother again straightened her waist and stood up. Ma scolded her. She said, “Hurry up, sweep the courtyard and then go and eat. Then scour the utensils, and put the rice for dinner on the stove.”
We all had had our lunch. Only Jori’s Ma was left. She, alone, had to finish the cooking, feed everyone, scour the utensils, clean and mop the house, and sweep the courtyard, before she could eat.
To think of Jori’s age, her mother needed to look up at the sky again. The reddish sky was filled with flocks of birds flying towards their nests. Jori’s Ma had never been able to return to any nest with her daughter. After the birth of Jori, she had been bound to one house or another - bound by work.
“How old? Twelve! Khala, won’t Jori be twelve years old?”
Jori’s mother asked, looking at Ma helplessly.
“How can you say twelve? She appears to be at least fourteen or fifteen.”
Ma did not know when Jori was born. She had not seen her at birth. Jori’s mother had come to stay in this house along with Jori only two years ago. Ma kept Jori’s mother for this house, and left Jori at Nanibari to run errands for Nani. Whatever Ma said about ages were all conjectures. Ma guessed ages looking at the physical appearance of people. However, these conjectures were happily accepted by Jori’s mother. From now on Jori’s mother knew her daughter’s age to be “fourteen or fifteen”, and her own to be “forty or forty-two, or even forty-five.”
Jori’s Ma gathered the fallen leaves, branches and feathers in the courtyard and heaped them on the garbage pile near the pond. She then lit a small oil lamp in the kitchen and sat down to eat rice and aubergine curry. Meanwhile Ma sat on the verandah, sorrowfully staring at the coops of swans and hens running about. I sat with my legs spread out at her feet, listening to the whirring buzz about my head, of the evening concert of dancing mosquitoes along with the sounds of ululation drifting in from Dolly Pal’s house. I watched how darkness slowly fell from the sky onto our cleanly swept earthen courtyard, like water droplets dripping from the wet hair of a melancholy maiden.
Staring at the segun tree behind the tin shed, I asked Ma softly, “How old is the segun tree, Ma?”
Ma looked strangely at the tree and said, “… seems to be three hundred years old.”
How Ma guessed the ages of all human beings and trees, I could not understand.
“Why don’t people live for three hundred years, Ma?”
Ma did not utter a word. Darkness had enveloped her as though bats’ wings had flapped and covered her face, which otherwise always had the carefree appearance of sea gulls flying playfully over the waters.
Anxieties about age have continued to haunt me since then. I suddenly had the desire to celebrate my birthday according to the date written on my SSC form. It helped that Baba was in a good mood. As soon as I asked, a cake, a basket of malaikari sweets, one packet of chanachur, one pound of sweet biscuits and a dozen oranges arrived. In the evening I lit a candle on the cake. In the presence of whosoever was at home and one single precious guest, Chandana, I blew out the candle. I cut the one-pound cake with the only knife that could be found in the kitchen – the long knife used for the Holy Sacrifice of cows. Who would offer the first piece of cake to me was a matter of hot dispute between Geeta and Yasmin. Geeta finally won. Her desires and wishes, she being the daughter-in-law of the house, were given more importance than Yasmin’s. Yasmin moved away from the cake, sporting a long face. Meanwhile, before the camera light could come on, Geeta fixed a sweet smile on her face and offered me a piece, with her eye on the camera. My birthday was thus celebrated in the midst of cake-cutting, clapping, camera clicks, biscuits soaked in the malaikari, and lips licking the white icing on the cake. In this house it was the first time any birthday had been celebrated, and that, too, owing to my own enterprise. Chandana gave me three books of poems as a present. Raja Jaye, Raja Ashei (The King goes, the King comes), Adiganta Nagna Paddhwani (Bare Footfalls Reaching up to the Horizon) and Na Premik, Na Biplabi (Neither Lover nor Revolutionary). Dada gave me Rabindranath’s Galpaguchho (Collection of Stories). This was the first time in my life that I had received presents on my birthday. I couldn’t take my hands, my eyes or my mind away from the books. Much later that night, Ma said with a parched throat, “You could have broken a piece of sweet and given it to Jori’s mother. She has never eaten a sweet in her life. She could have tasted some, too.” I suddenly realized that not just Jori’s mother even Ma had not got a share of the birthday food. Ma of course said that she could do without it. If ever a biscuit or handful of chanachur was offered to Ma, she said “I really eat only rice. You all are kids, you eat. You all peck at rice like birds, so you need to eat other foods as well.”
After my birthday celebrations, Yasmin became very keen to celebrate her own. She caught hold of Baba to find out the date and month of her birth. Baba kept putting her off, but Yasmin doggedly persisted. After keeping her hanging for almost two months, Baba told her it was the 9th of September. That was all she needed. Before the 9th of September could come, Yasmin sent Baba a long list, three kinds of fruit, two kinds of sweet, along with chanachur and biscuits. She had already invited almost all the girls at school. When Baba saw the list he said, “What is a birthday? There is no need for having birthdays. Study hard and become a worthy individual. I do not want any celebrations in my house.” Ma cajoled Baba, in secret “She wants to celebrate her birthday, let her! Girls are Lakshmis, it is not right to beat and discipline them. They too have some desires. She is being childish, but indulge her for once.” Ma would use the respectful address ‘aapni’ for some time and then switch to the more intimate ‘tumi’. The reasons for descending or ascending from the familiar ‘tumi’ to the formal ‘aapni’ were so numerous, that by now neither Baba nor we were even startled by the change of terms. However, whether she used ‘tumi’ or ’aapni’, in a light or serious tone, whether she cried or laughed, whatever way Ma voiced her desires, Baba gave them the least importance. Ma knew this as well as Baba.
“Forget all this meaningless fun and games. The daughter dances and I see the mother doing the same… nothing but a dance of apes.”
Ma did not get cowed down by Baba’s frowns. She continued to cajole him while massaging hot garlic oil into his cold-affected chest and back. “Once you marry off the girls, they go away to another home. Whatever dreams and desires they have, must be fulfilled in their parents home itself.” Even if the garlic oil softened Baba’s flesh, it certainly didn’t seem to soften his heart. Yasmin was disappointed. Nothing was being done to celebrate her birthday. However, surprising everyone – that afternoon, Baba sent us all the items in Yasmin’s list. The girl danced with delight. Arranging all the food in saucers, all dressed up, she sat staring at the black main gate all evening, awaiting her guests. Since no one appeared, Yasmin had no alternative but to invite three of her neighbourhood gollachhut playmates when the girls came to the grounds late in the evening, and feed them the birthday feast.
When Chhotda returned home at dusk, he was surprised to see the display of food. “Hey, what is the occasion today?”
Yasmin laughed shyly and said, “It’s my birthday.”
“Who said you were born on this day?”
“Baba said so.” Once Baba had said something, it did not behove anyone to utter a word in contradiction; for everyone at home, whatever Baba said, was the truth. There was after all no one more knowledgeable and intelligent than him.
“Okay, understood. You needed a birth date, so you asked Baba for one, and he made up one.”
Yasmin was stunned at Chhotda’s audacity.
That day too, the one who did not get to share even a single piece of Yasmin’s cake was Ma. She had left the house in the afternoon to return only at dusk. In her hand was a brown paper packet, inside which was a red coloured dress material for Yasmin. Ma was going to stitch a frilled frock for Yasmin herself. Having no money, she had, without telling anyone, borrowed some from Hashem mama, and gone to Gaurhari Cloth House and bought three yards of the material.
When I saw it, I leapt up shouting “But it is not her birthday today!”
“Who said it isn’t her birthday?”
“So what!” Ma scolded. “Never mind if it’s not her birthday. The girl wanted to have a little fun, let her.”
We never got
clothes except on the occasion of Id. Baba gave us clothes only once a year and
that was on Chhota Id. Before the next year’s Chhota Id could come, our dresses
would either tear or become small. If one requested Baba for new clothes he
would snarl and say, “Don’t you have two dresses, wear one and wash it when
it’s dirty, and wear the other. There is no need to have more than two
dresses.” Ma would increase the length of our short dresses with sari borders,
or any other extra piece of cloth and mend the tears. School going girls
normally had two kinds of clothes, one to wear at home and the other to wear
outside. If ever I wanted to keep my Id clothes for wearing outside, and asked
for clothes to wear at home, Baba said, “Why do you have to go out? If you have
to go out anywhere, that is to your school. For that you have your school
uniform.” At school, girls were given the liberty to wear clothes other than
their uniforms when a cultural function was held or a picnic organized. The
girls wore different dresses for different functions. Since I wore the same
dress for each and every occasion, one of my classmates asked me once, “Don’t
you have any other clothes?” I was so afflicted by shame that I ran and hid
myself behind a pillar for a very long time. Baba had never refused us our
school uniforms. He personally took us to Gaurhari Cloth House to buy the
material and then went to the tailor shop at Ganginar Par. When the tailor took
our measurements, he repeatedly instructed the tailor to make the uniforms
larger, so that they would last longer. Even at the shoe shops, Baba would say
to the shopkeeper, “Make sure the shoes are a little bigger, so that they can
be used for a longer time.” I found that even the clothes and shoes larger in
size, shrank rather fast. Ma said, “The clothes and shoes don’t get smaller,
you all outgrow them.” As we kept growing physically, I used to be scared that
Baba would get angry. Later when Dada was studying at
Yasmin was delightedly jumping all over the house wrapped in the red cloth that Ma had bought for her. Ma sat in the dark verandah with her hair hanging loose, and watched the bright red Yasmin, who appeared rather beautiful in the glow of the lighted room.
She came on transfer from Comilla and took admission in the new school in Mymensingh. We established eye contact the very day she joined class. Her almost wholly shut eyes spoke volumes on that first day itself. Of course, on that day, she stuck close to her paternal or maternal cousin sister Seema Dewan. She did the same on the second day also. She sat on my bench on the third day, and after that she did not sit anywhere else. Chandana’s complexion was like virgin paper, her nose was as if chiseled by stone. Half her eyes were concealed by her eyelids. The other half twinkled directly at me and lighted up my heart. When her loose, long, thick hair freely tumbled down her back like monsoon rain, it secretly soothed my entire body. Ever since Dilruba left, the seat next to me had remained unreserved. Before I knew it, Chandana had taken over that place. Every day Chandana’s sounds, smells, complexion and Dilruba’s absence hovered over me like shadows. Chandana was not the only girl newly admitted to the class. Flocks of girls from Vidyamoyee were coming in. They were the same rebellious friends of mine. Yet the fragrance of our relationship in which I was totally submerged, remained fresh and unaffected.
Adarsha Balika Vidyayatan or
While I was flying
high with Chandana in her wild ways, my SSC exams hung over my head like
Damocles’ sword, threatening to invade my home and enter every nook and corner.
Baba advised me to learn by heart and internalize each word on every
page of every book. My world was to be surrounded by nothing else but dark
black letters. However, my desire to follow Baba’s advice would vanish
as soon as Baba left the house or the sound of his snores became
audible. On the way to school the one-class senior boys of
Asma Ahmed, with
her nose and chest both up in the air, was a good student who kept herself
aloof from everyone. It seems even she had exchanged glances with one of the
good students from the
If Borodada was with me, I would sit in the rickshaw with my head bent in shame because of his appearance. When I raised my head, it gave me the opportunity to furtively look at the boys standing on the road. A new plump boy standing next to Lutfer, wearing blue trousers and a white shirt, set my heart aflutter again one day. One glance was enough to excite me. I kept feeling I was drowning in love’s bottomless waters. I kept feeling that the plump boy would be thinking of me. That he would be standing on the road at ten, when I would go to school, only to get one glimpse of me. He did stand on the road the next day. When I saw him, I was sure there was no one more handsome in the world than this roly-poly. I was amazed at how my whole life now seemed centred around him. How, if I didn’t see his smiling lips and eyes everyday, my life was futile.
Then suddenly one day the mind switched from these instant love affairs, without which I had thought I would surely die, to the books in the library. My eagerness to finish reading as many books as were on the shelves gained the momentum of a hungry shark. Once the books within our reach had been read, the ones beyond our reach were obtained by either standing on our toes, or using ladders, and were gobbled up by Chandana and me. These books were kept under our textbooks, pillows, mattresses, in spite of the fact that our exams were looming ahead. The home tutor Shamshul Huda, taught me physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and all the seven kinds of sciences. He would slap me almost every evening as a routine. But despite that, as soon as Shamshul Huda had disseminated scientific knowledge to me, had his tea and biscuits and left the house, I would bend over those unwholesome books. Chandana was far ahead of me in this. Where I finished two books, she finished seven. In the race to read books, I was always behind her. It was my belief that Mamata, the bookworm, too could not keep up with Chandana. The library books were called ‘outbooks’ by the girls at school. On wanting to know what ‘outbook’ meant I was told that any book outside the syllabus, was an ‘outbook’. Girls who read ‘outbooks’ were not looked upon very favourably by the quiet, serious-minded good students. Those who read ‘outbooks’ were considered to be the kind who did not concentrate on their studies. Their minds were restless. Most importantly, such girls were not good students and got marks resembling zeros in their exams. This was the general idea current in the school. Why this was so, I was unable to fathom. Even after proving that I could read ‘outbooks’ and still do well in my exams, this idea was not dispelled. Our addiction to these other books created a different world for Chandana and me. Now, personal love stories of students or teachers did not drift into our ears, they got stuck somewhere midway. The air around us was now heavy with the tears of Parvati, the sound of Rajlakshmi’s bare feet, Charulata’s loneliness and Bimala’s dilemma.
It was not that the air was always heavy. Once in a while it cleared up with pure laughter, and became free from gloom. Such an unblemished smile played often on our librarian Syeduzzaman’s lips. He taught Islamiat once in a while. For this subject the school had no teacher. Whenever a teacher was free, he came to take Islamiat classes. Syeduzzaman’s unadulterated smiling stretched up to his ears in the Islamiat class. His smile had value, because this class was less important than all other classes. Kalyani Pal taught us Bangla wearing a Monalisa smile. Such a smile had use in the savouring of the essence of literature. Suraiyya Begum also exuded the scent of rajnigandhas through her toothy smile. Could the scent of a flower be transmitted through a smile? Chandana said it could. Our Mathematics teacher came to class with a grumpy face. Just as well. Encouraged by Syeduzzaman’s smile, even if we sat in the Islamiat class gazing abstractedly at the sky, writing copies full of poetry, spending half-an-hour instead of five minutes in visiting the toilet or drinking water, it did not make any difference. Syeduzzaman, too, spent more time on telling stories than teaching Islamiat. His tales were not totally uninteresting either. However, he repeatedly told us that as a subject Islamiat was not entirely to be ignored, as it was a scoring subject. If one could write the Surah Fateeha more or less correctly or give four names of the Asmani books, one could . In case you lost marks in physics or chemistry, then you could depend on Islamiat to get first class marks without much hard work.
For the Mussalman girls in class there was Islamiat readings, for the Hindus, Sanatan Dharma teachings. In the whole school there was no one to teach Hindu Religion either. Just because Kalyani Pal was a Hindu, she was constantly pushed into that class. She would tell her students that instead of wasting time with religion, they should spend time with mathematics that will be more useful. The Hindu girls therefore got a big holiday in their Religion class. They didn’t waste any time on mathematics and went straight to the grounds to play, or spent time in adda , gossip in the empty classrooms. Since Chandana was a Buddhist, she too should have left the class. When there was no teacher for Hindu Religion, there was no question of there being a teacher for Buddhist Studies. But she remained motionless in the Islamiat class, either deep in some storybook, or in poetry. Sitting next to her I could neither concentrate on Islamiat, nor open a Niharranjan Gupta under Syeduzzaman’s nose. I would just scribble or compose verses.
“Syeduzzaman fires a cannon
Loading a religious horse on his shoulder
He speaks whatever nonsense he can find
He not only has a cough, he even pants.
He also puts a cap on,
But does he really believe in the Quran, the Hadith?
Or is it all a put on?”
Having ripped Syeduzzaman into shreds, I felt bad later. He was a thorough gentleman in shirt and trousers, whose pate had not been adorned with any cap. Why had I slighted him so! Actually it was not about Syeduzzaman at all. I could have done this to anyone. A person looking like a puny tangra fish could safely be converted into a wide-mouthed booal fish, especially with a little indulgence from Chandana. When the Bangla teacher Suraiyya Begum would waddle along, Chandana and I would follow her like two ants. Chandana would whisper – “Olo Suraiyya, picking flowers, turning your face.”
I would add – “How much longer will you waddle, the day has almost gone.”
Chandana, feigning a deep sigh would conclude, “By the time you reach, you will be gone too.”
We knew the
teachers at the Residential Adarsha Balika Vidyayatan were not to be
disregarded. Nevertheless, we indulged in limericks, which rarely remained
secret, private or unknown. Other schools would recruit BA’s, but, if you
wanted to teach at the Residential, you had to be an MA, the qualification for
University teaching. None of these Vidyayatan teachers were from this
town. They came from very far, mostly from
auditorium in this school was worth a look, and so were the functions that were
held there. This auditorium was not a hencoop like in the other schools. It had
dimensions of a cinema hall. At the press of a button, heavy velvet drapes
moved from one end of the stage to the other. The stage itself was a revolving
one. The audience seating arrangements were extensive .The kind of plays,
dance-dramas, musical concerts and other functions that could be performed on
this stage could not be bettered by any other school. If not every month, at
least every two months cultural functions were held, apart from the various
festivals that were observed all the year round. If one solicited enough,
formidable teachers would come out of their shells and sing in amazingly
tuneful musical voices. There was no need for bombs to be thrown, requisite
amounts of tickling could bring forth poetry from the innermost recesses of
many, in fact even from that of the Maths teacher. It wasn’t as though apart
from these concerts we spent our time listlessly. Suraiyya Begum teaching Bangla
poetry, would very often recite the poems she had composed. Suraiyya
Begum’s heart may have been as soft as clay, but Jinnatoon Nahar’s was as hard
as a rock. She taught us English. Actually, I had never liked the English
teachers. The teachers of English were as tough as the subject was difficult. I
loved Bangla, so did Chandana. One day, as was our routine, we reached
school in the morning and stood in class-wise rows in the grounds. We completed
our daily exercises, and sang our National Anthem ‘Amar Sonar Bangla Aami
Tomai Bhalobashi , my golden Bangla I love you’ in front of the
Bangladesh National Flag. Then we went to our classes. As soon as we entered
our class room, our Principal informed us that writer Kazi Motahar Hussain was
visiting our school at that time and, if we wished to, we could meet him. Our
hearts trembled with excitement. Kazi Motahar Hussain was our Principal’s
father. He wrote very well, played very well, as it was with most intelligent
people – competent in every field of knowledge. He had fathered quite a few
talented children. Except for this Wabaida Saad, the others were all quite
renowned. His son Kazi Anwar Hussain was a famous writer. Daughters Sanjeeda
Khatoon and Faimida Khatoon, were both celebrated Rabindrasangeet exponents.
But, in going to meet this famous father of famous children, Chandana and I got
into a very embarrassing situation. At first we kept peeping through the door.
Soon we opened the door softly with eighty-five percent fear and fifteen
percent courage, and entering his room, we saw him laughing, waving his white
beard. His eyes were bright with curiosity. We entered the room,
saying in submissive tones that we had come to meet him. He listened to us,
smiled sweetly, and switched on a radio set kept on the table. The volume was
very loud. The radio remained on for quite some time. Chandana and I kept
exchanging astonished looks. His white-haired and bearded face glowed and he
continued smiling radiantly, with his ear glued to the radio. We again informed
him of the reason for our visit. This time he nodded his head, meaning that if
not then, now at least he had understood why we had come. Then immediately he left
the room, not just the room he left the house and walked rapidly towards the
school. Following him we found he had, Oh Ma, gone straight to
his daughter and was asking her, ‘You called for me?’ Wabaida Saad was stunned.
She had certainly not called for her respected father. What was happening? The
respected father was hard of hearing. How were we going to carry on a
conversation with him then! Wabaida Saad could not find any solution to our
problem. We had no alternative but to silently hurl our reverences at this
dignified figure of a much venerated, respected and saluted man. It was the
first time I had seen a living writer since I had grown up. I had heard from Ma
that when I was six months old, Rahat Khan, a writer friend of Baba, used
to visit us. He would rock me in his arms, and sing songs of his own
composition. The songs were dedicated to Farida Akhtar, a school friend of
Ma’s. “The mendicant maid of my dreams lives near a festering pond, but
I sailed my barge and went and saw her...” Rahat Khan was a master at
Ma was not as keen as I was to hear stories of Rahat Khan. To a well-read girl, a writer was someone great… someone who lived on a different planet. That those who wrote books were human beings like us, that they too urinated and excreted, that their noses too, once in a while, got stuffed with cold, that if they blew their noses thick yellow mucous would come out, was something I could not believe. I had the same belief about film stars. They led beautiful, elegant lives, lived in a starry world, rode in shining cars and wore dazzling clothes. They lolled on bolsters like kings and ate apples or grapes and they slept on beds as soft as cotton-wool. They did not exude any physical smell, let alone that of sweat. From them emanated the scent of roses. They never made even a single mistake in their work, never spoke untruths and never caused anybody pain. They were what could be called noble. I was as much a bookworm, as I was a cinema addict. Chandana was the same. I would request and cajole Dada to take me to the cinema, and we would pick up Chandana on the way. After a lot of trouble and effort on our part Dada would arrange once in a while, to show us a movie, but for my first chance to see a film magazine at home, I owe thanks to Chhotda. Chhotda was a young man who could not concentrate on studies, who roamed all over town; a jack of all trades, he was married rather prematurely. Every week he would return home late in the afternoon with a Chitrali in his hand to while away his leisure hours. Chhotda had no wealth, but he had a heart. As soon as Chhotda’s recreation was over, my curiosity would be set free. What was written in that paper with pictures? I was the kind of girl who, whenever she saw printed words, would read them immediately. On the way to school, in case there were no boys around, I would read anew all the signboards I had read a million times before. After buying nuts, I would read what was written on the packet while eating the nuts. After eating tamarind pickle, I would lick the remnants and even decipher what was barely readable in the oil-smudged paper. Why would a book worm like me allow a journal full of amusement lie unread, because it was in pictures! It became a habit to look at Chhotda’s Chitrali. The habit gradually descended to an addiction. Or grew in to one, who knows! If Chhotda forgot to buy the magazine, then what! Saving the rickshaw fare to school, I would buy the magazine and read it from cover to cover. I’d go to sleep at night with all details at my fingertips regarding the houses, cars, meals of all the heroes and heroines, along with news of their love affairs and separations. In my dreams, I would see one of the heroes meeting me on a starry night on the banks of a moonlit lake with a soft breeze blowing. That hero would dance and sing for me as he swore that he could not live without me, with the trees, skies, air, lake water, moonlight everything as his witness. Unless I had the magazine in my hand on Friday I could not digest my food, at least Ma thought so. I was not worried about my digestion at all. However, if the magazine arrived while I was eating, I would push my plate aside and get up. Or, I would be holding the magazine in one hand and eating with the other. The hand holding the magazine was invariably faster than the hand eating food. Chitrali had the power to not only make me forget food it could even make me forget my parents. This started when one of my articles was published in the Readers’ Page. I had just sent a piece, on why the ethereal-voiced Sabeena was being ignored; given the sweetness of her voice, Runa’s voice was harsh in comparison and so on. That was the first time ever any article of mine had been published in a magazine. Before sending the article, I had asked Chhotda whether Chitrali would publish something I sent. Chhotda had said “Stupid” and pushed me away. Apparently, Chitrali got five thousand letters a day. Four thousand nine hundred and ninety two were never opened, let alone read, they were thrown into the wastepaper basket. So if I sent a letter it would go straight to that basket. Although Chhotda had extinguished with one puff, my chandelier of desire and had heaped sacks of despair over my hopes, I had still secretly sent my article to the Chitrali address, testing my fate. Quite delightfully, it actually got published the very next week, the photograph of Sabeena Yasmin and Runa Laila inserted. There was major excitement at home. I floated in the currents of hip-hip-hurrahs. My name was printed in the magazine, an unbelievable event indeed! Chhotda, after remaining totally open-mouthed for sometime, finally stuttered “Wow, y-your wr-writing has been pu-published!” As though I had accomplished the impossible! A victorious smile was stuck to my lips like red ants on a sugar-candy. I brandished the magazine innumerable times before everyone’s eyes except for Baba’s; in fact even before Jori’s Ma’s eyes. Jori’s mother looked at the magazine with astonishment. “But this looks no different from thongar kagoj, paper packets”, she said.
unbelievable event took place, another equally unbelievable event occurred.
Next week, I found that several responses, both favourable and unfavourable, to
my article had also been published in Chitrali. My enthusiasm bubbled
like boiling rice. I began sending my articles not only to the Reader’s Page,
but also to the Letters section. Those days a new magazine called Purbani
modeled on Chitrali, was making its appearance in the world of
star-entertainment literature. I was not so heartless as to neglect Purbani.
I just had to have both Chitrali and Purbani every week. If
either of them carried my articles, Chhotda would say with a thin smile on his
lips, “Yes, it’s been published,” and if it was not he would say, “What
happened, didn’t they print your article?” Chandana did not have to be pulled
into this world. Struck by glamour she entered the arena herself. More was
written about me than I wrote myself. I was becoming like a member of the
group. It seemed the person who gave the replies to letters in Chitrali,
known to everyone as Uttar (answer) da, dipped into a pot of syrup while
composing his replies. As I continued to write, this unseen Uttarda began to
feel like my own Dada. After a small hair-pulling battle between Yasmin
and me over a pencil, I wrote to Uttarda to inform him of my unhappy
state of mind. Even if I was full of good spirits, I had to inform him first.
Plucking a phrase from the Golpukur adda, Chhotda one day said,
“Twenty springs of my life have passed by and not a crow has cawed let alone a
cuckoo sing here”. Cuckoo meaning the cultural luminaries, while crows stood
for the smaller fry in the cultural scene. I quickly picked up the phrase and
sent it to Uttarda. He was so upset to hear it that he chased all the
After my articles
were published in Chitrali, quite a few letters came in my name to the Aubokash
address, from various cities of the country with requests for pen-friendship.
This had never happened before. Till then, no letter had come for me from
anyone outside our relative circle. I was quite excited on getting these
letters. Pen-friendship was quite a unique affair – to know people far away
only through letters, and then to gradually get to know them almost as
relatives and friends. Jewel from
Chandana had begun to read another magazine, ‘Bichitra’, apart from Chitrali and Purbani. One of her articles had even been published in the Reader’s Page. On hearing that women were to be recruited by the Police Force, Chandana gave a proposal for the uniform the women police could wear. The Burkha. Remaining under the Burkha would be in accordance with religious requirements and at the same time the activities of thieves and robbers could be observed through the eye-holes. No passerby would suspect she was a policewoman. Bichitra had published her article along with a Burkha-wali’s cartoon sketched next to it. I had to save four to six annas from the school rickshaw fare, to buy Chitrali and Purbani. It wasn’t always possible to have the money to buy Bichitra. I would perpetually beg for it from Dada. Dada enjoyed seeing my outstretched hand, and once in a while, dropped some coins into it. With that, I would buy Bichitra like an addict. To buy meant that I had to make Yasmin or Jori’s Ma stand at the black gate, or stand there myself in order to call a hawker as soon as one appeared. If there was no hawker, I would send Yasmin to the Ganginar Par turn, and she would buy one. Since I was grown up I was not allowed to walk alone on the streets. The prohibitory order had not been imposed on Yasmin, so at bad times I had to depend on her. It wasn’t just the expense of buying magazines, to write for the magazines and reply to the pen-friends was also expensive. If one gave Chhotda the letters, even the money for postage stamps had to be counted out. In case Dada’s mood was off, the option was to sell “old glass bottles and papers”. Next to Aubokash, hawkers would call out all day and pass along the three roads that went in different directions— one towards Golpukur Par, another towards Durgabari and another towards Sherpukur Par. They would call out melodiously- Sari and kapod-wala, badam-wala, chanachur-wala, aachar-wala, churi and pheeta-wala, ice-cream-wala, hawai-mithai-wala, ghee-wala, murgi-wala, kabootar-wala, hans-wala, kotkoti-wala, muri-wala, glass-bottle-paper-wala. As soon as I would hear the hawker calling the last glass-bottle-paper-wala, I would send whoever was at hand to catch the fellow. On his head would be a big basket. Before the basket was lowered from the head, bargaining would be on. “How much?”
“Newspaper three taka a ser, books and copies two taka.”
“What do you mean by three taka? If you will give four taka, tell us.”
“Four taka would be too much. You can take three and a half.”
“Are your weighing scales okay?”
“Sell only after you are satisfied.”
Once the hawker lowered the basket and sat in the verandah, I would forget my fascination for the old magazines under the bedroom cot, and get them out. I even hunted out old books and copies. After selling them, I would get about ten or fifteen taka. Even ten-fifteen taka made me feel like a king. Chhotda too sold magazines, Ma sold old glass bottles after hoarding them, even torn scraps of paper found in the courtyard while sweeping, were dusted and stored. The two paise Ma earned from broken glass and torn paper, she kept under the mattresses, or tied in the corner of her sari aanchal. This she was able to put to use and stemmed at times Yasmin and Chhotda’s extreme penury. Chandana was never lashed by poverty. In spite of living in a rented green tin house in Panditpara, Chandana easily procured money for magazines every week. Chandana may not have been able to go to the Town Hall premises full of men but she would manage to do some amazing things without warning. She arrived one day at the crack of dawn riding on her younger brother, Saju’s, cycle. On seeing Chandana, my heart overflowed with joy. The rest of those at home scrambled out of bed and stared open-mouthed at her. How daring a girl had to be to take a cycle out in the streets of the city, whether early in the morning or at deserted ! Making Chandana sit in the inner room, Ma ran into the kitchen and heated rice, rotis and meat. Ma made her sit next to her and fed her. Chandana, of course, had to run after stuffing herself. Before people came out she had to reach home. Chandana rode away on the cycle, with her hair blowing in the mild breeze while I was left standing at the black gate staring at her in fascination. As if the girl on the cycle, her hair blowing in the wind, was not Chandana at all, but me. I wished I dared to cycle around the whole city, like Chandana.
While I was in
this frame of mind, almost every evening, after finishing his work, Shamshul
Huda would come to tutor me. As soon as I saw Huda’s face anywhere near the
black gate, I would start trembling. On a delightful evening I would have to do
sums, delve into physics and almost drown in the pond of chemistry. When
Rabindranath Das came to teach Yasmin, I found it quite enjoyable. Rabindranath
taught Yasmin for fifteen minutes and chatted for forty-five minutes. He did
not chat with just Yasmin, but with me too. He had a daughter, Krishna and a
son, Gautam, growing up in the Kaliganj
The SSC exams were close at hand, in fact they were literally at the tip of my nose, so to speak, and there was no option but to stay put in the house. Out of twenty-four hours, I was at my study table for eighteen. Suddenly I became the most important person in the house. If I went for a walk, everyone stood aside to give me space. If I went to the toilet, Ma would herself go and place a pitcher of water there for me. No one had to be told to fill my bucket of water, before my bath it was always filled. Since I had to sit up at nights preparing for the exams, special delicacies were cooked for me to eat. Ma was actually feeding me with her own hands. Every so often, Baba would return home with fruits and would caress me. There was pin drop silence in the house day and night. The inhabitants in the house whispered amongst themselves so that no sound disturbed my concentration. When the Puja songs started in the para, Baba personally went and told the Chairman of the Puja Committee, that the songs had to be stopped any which way, as his daughter was taking her SSC exam. Understanding the importance of the SSC exam, Dilip Bhowmik actually stopped the music. In case he had to play them, the mikes were turned the other way. Next to my open books and copies on the table was also an open box of biscuits. I was to eat them whenever I felt hungry while studying. Ma came and gave me hot milk twice a day, saying, “Milk helps the brain to function and helps remember all that is memorised.” One of the girls of this house was taking the SSC exams, what could be bigger news, or of greater significance than that? As the days drew closer, I got the feeling that the Angel of Death, Aajrail, was coming to seize me forcibly. My heart trembled. My body, hands and legs shook. At two or three at night, Baba would awaken me and say, “Splash some water in your eyes, and sit down to study.” I would do so and sit down. Baba would say, “If the water does not work, apply mustard oil.”
The first day was
the Bangla exam. I had never felt afraid about Bangla ever
before, but on the day of the exam I kept feeling I would not pass. Every
morning Ma gave me a fried egg to eat, saying it was good for me. But on an
exam day, an egg was not allowed, because if one ate an egg one scored an egg
too. A banana, too, would not do. Not even a kochu. Getting a banana or kochu
in the exams was the same as getting a rasgolla. Although bananas, kochu
and rasgolla were my favourite foods, I had to forego them while the
exams were on. I was the one having exams but Baba was more restless
than me. The night before, he hadn’t slept a wink. Seeing him, it felt as
though Baba was taking the exams. He repeatedly wanted to know if
I had memorised the whole book or not.
Ma was tying two banana shaped plaits with my oily hair on my oily head. Now all that was left was to tie the threaded paper with a knot in my hair. My eyes were spilling over with tears of shame, but still Baba caught hold of me and tied the small paper packet to my hair. Chhotda was in splits on seeing me, so was Yasmin. Chhotda said, “You can’t possibly pass your SSC, but with the power of this amulet you might.”
me not one or two but four new fountain pens and a new bottle of Pelican ink.
In case, the ink in my pen finished while writing, I was to fill up and
continue to write. Although everyone had been catering to the moods of the
examinee, no one listened to my ‘No’ regarding the amulet. That amulet surfaced
like a Kholshey fish on my oily hair. Chandana also took her exams at
“Mother Earth, please swallow me up without further delay,” I prayed fervently for only the second time in my life. But the Mother Earth did not comply.
“If I am to pass I would do so anyway, not because of any amulet,” I said as soon as I returned home, pulling it off my hair with one stroke.
Ma objected, “It will help you remember your lessons.”
“I can remember what I had learnt anyway,” I said gritting my teeth and suppressing my sobs.
Baba rebuked me and said, “You can remember because this is on your head, otherwise you wouldn’t.”
I stared in astonishment. I could not believe that this man who had faith in blessings, obeisance, amulets and charms was my father.
talisman was put on my head. None of my rejections were heeded to. Full of
shame, with my head bowed I had to go everyday to the
TA TA THOI THOI – DANCING AWAY
Chhotda re-entered Aubokash with his wife, just before my exams. This happened because of Ma. She had been inconsolable in her grief over her son. When her appeals and requests to Baba failed, she sent Hashem mama to fetch Chhotda and his wife to the city, from some shanty in a village in Islampur. However, reaching the town was no guarantee that he would get permission to enter Aubokash. Baba straight away declared that they were not to even look towards Aubokash even in the distant future. Ma cajoled Nani, and a room next to the well in Nani’s courtyard, the room that used to be our dining room, was cleared out. A wooden cot was laid out for them. Once Chhotda began to live there with his wife, Baba issued orders by which at least Yasmin and my visits to Nanibari had to stop. Ma, however, regularly visited Chhotda’s family. Obviously she never went empty-handed. For the welfare of her son, rice, daals, vegetables, whatever she could collect from Aubokash, she carried with her. Whenever Baba was not at home, Chhotda dropped in at Aubokash. He, of course, never dropped in without reason. He came only when he needed something. Ma would think of Baba’s cruelty and say, “Is he a man or a stone?” But her untiring efforts softened Baba a bit one day and he agreed to allow Chhotda and his wife to enter Aubokash, but they were to only stay in a small room in the corner. They were not allowed free access to the rest of house. Baba only agreed because he wanted to see (since Chhotda was already married, although there was no justification for marriage at this age) if he could complete his studies and earn his own keep. Ma arranged the small room that she occupied for them. To hang their clothes, she placed a clothes rack in front of the door adjoining Dada’s room that she kept shut. Chhotda’s old cot was brought from Dada’s room and placed in the small room. Chhotda insisted that the dressing table be moved into his room. Nana had gifted Ma this dressing table along with the pots and bedspreads for her wedding. Wooden flowers and leaves were carved around the mirror and at the bottom and they swung if the table was moved. It had two small shelves on both sides and two drawers. This leonine four-legged table was dragged from Baba’s room by Ma herself and put in the small room. She wiped the dusty mirror with her sari aanchal. Geeta would spend an hour before the table, getting ready, and would go out with Chhotda almost every evening. I looked at them with longing eyes. If only I, too, could do the same!
Baba had sworn he would not look at Chhotda and his wife. However, within two days of their coming to stay at Aubokash permanently, he called for me after having his morning bath. Clothed in his shirt, pant, shoes and tie, with a head full of curly hair, combed and doused in mustard oil, he was sitting cross legged in the drawing room. When Baba called, it meant that wherever you were, whatever you may be doing, you had to drop everything and rush to stand before him. As soon as I stood before Baba, he said, “Call those two.” ‘Those two’ were which two? I had the opportunity to ask that question, but didn’t. Since Baba had given orders, I had to figure out which ‘two’ in the house were ‘those two’. Why only me, everyone at home had to know which ‘two’ Baba could summon at this time. I figured out who were ‘those two’. Entering Chhotda’s room I said in hushed tones, “Go, summons have come, not only for you but for both of you.” Chhotda’s face turned pale in a second. He got out of bed in a hurry, tying the knot of his lungi.
He asked Geeta, a score of times to accompany him. She sat motionless on the bed, while agitatedly Chhotda moved back and forth between the bed and the door. “Nasreen,” – with a weird sound the second call came from the drawing room. This meant why ‘those two’ were taking so long! Finally, when the ‘two’ mustered up enough courage to drag themselves up for the audience and stand before him, I pressed my eyes, ears and nose to a crack in the door. Geeta bent down and touched Baba’s feet. For a Hindu girl, kadambusi, much like a pranam, was nothing new. Baba coughed to clear his throat, although there was no such cough filling up his throat. Looking at Chhotda with eyes as red as it was possible to make, he said, “Have you thought about your life? You have got married so your studies have been abandoned. You went to set up house in the village with a hundred taka job. What job was this, may I ask? A coolie’s work, right? What else would you get but a coolie’s job with your education! You have dug your own grave. Has it hurt anyone else? Has anything happened to me? Nothing has happened to me. It has to you. Even a madman understands himself, but you don’t. If you ask a madman for his money, will he give it? If you ask him for his food, will he give it? No, he won’t.”
Baba paused for a while. I don’t know whether he was waiting for words of defense from the ‘two’ embodiments. Then he said, “Go and take admission in Anandamohan. You have a third division in the intermediate, so your chances are dim, but go and try at least. When you go, take money from my chambers.” Baba now turned to Geeta, and screwing up his eyes and nose said, “What were you thinking of when you did this? You did not think even of your own future, did you?” Geeta’s eyes were not visible as they were cast down, her hair arrangement could not be seen because of her aanchal-covered head. Geeta’s mouth was a small one and in her small face the mouth looked smaller. Baba paused again, cleared his throat in spite of the absence of cough, and said, “Geeta, both my daughters have to study. Let me not see you chatting with them. Have you understood?” Geeta nodded her head to convey she had understood. Baba got up noisily and loudly closed the door adjoining my room. Leaving orders that they were to use the inner verandah door only, he opened this door noisily and left equally noisily. Chhotda had no option but to follow Baba’s orders. He secured admission in Bangla Honours at Anandamohan and returned home. Hearing of this, Baba went around with a sarcastic smile on the corner of his mouth for a week saying, “How many men have succeeded studying Bangla? Bangla graduates are qualified, at the most to drive bullock carts, not much else.” That was all he said. Baba had seemingly given up hope, and did not drag Chhotda to get him admission in some science subject. Chhotda safely kept spending his married life in Aubokash. Once in a while carrying a copy in his hand and a fountain pen in his pocket, he would go to college, and return with a despondent face.
In spite of Baba’s
strict orders, Yasmin’s and my friendship with Geeta grew. When the elders were
not at home, I was normally the one who was ‘the leader of the mischief makers,
the King of Lanka’. We would play in the grounds or climb up the terrace and
survey the world. The world meant the dozens of different people on the
streets, the houses and courtyards of neighbours, the holy Tulsi corner ritual,
the evening incense, and the singing of kirtans with the accompanying music
of the cymbals. It also meant watching the procession of women, each clad in a
single wrap of coloured sari and carrying bell metal pitchers, led by a hired
band, heading towards the
“You won’t be able to climb the banana tree, will you?” I asked once. “What do you mean won’t be able to?” Even in a sari she would climb up the banana tree and go straight up to the topmost branch. Perched precariously, she would even eat the guavas which were within her reach. The neighbours could see the new bride of the house perched on the tree from the streets. We were awestruck at Geeta’s antics. We stuck to her like a tail. I had no knowledge of climbing trees, Geeta initiated me. She taught me many other things as well. When it rained, it was our old habit to run around in the courtyard and grounds and get wet, climb up the stairs to the terrace and dance all around it. Geeta was not satisfied with just running and dancing in the rain. Drenched like a wet crow, she would climb up the thatched roof of the hut and sit there.
I was sitting in the verandah watching her and saw her fall. She had heard the sound of the black gate, and in her attempt to clamber down she had fallen. What was worse, she fell on the broken brick laid courtyard. Having slipped on the wet roof, she had rolled down like a ripe pumpkin torn from its stalk. Yasmin too was on top of the roof. Seeing Geeta fall she was not sure whether to laugh or cry. Geeta sat in the courtyard, with a pale face and a wet crumpled sari. Meanwhile Ma had come and was hanging up her wet burkha on the clothes wire in the verandah. She was shocked to see the bride of the house sitting on the macadam. She exclaimed, “Afroza, what are you doing there?” Geeta said, “No, Ma, I’m doing nothing, Yasmin is up there on the roof, so I am sitting here and watching her.”
“Yasmin has climbed the roof?”
“Yes, see, there she is, sitting. I told her so many times not to climb, she will fall, but she didn’t listen.”
Yasmin came down
from the top of the roof when Ma scolded her. Geeta, meanwhile went to the
bathroom, changed her sari and came back looking completely innocent. Ma cooked
khichuri ,a concoction of rice and lentils, in the afternoon and poured
some onto Geeta’s plate. Heaving a sigh of relief she said, “Since you are
looking after the two girls, I can now peacefully go to Naumahal sometimes and
hear the Quran Hadith”. Geeta said, “Ma, you don’t worry at all, I’m looking
after them. I will see that they do not get into any mischief”. Ma served
Geeta three pieces of meat instead of two, with mango pickle on the side. Geeta
said, “Ma you have cooked delicious meat. How do you make such tasty
pickle?” Ma served her more meat and pickle and carried on
enthusiastically, “I will teach you how to make the pickle. It’s very simple.
Cut the mango into slices and soak them in a jar with mustard oil, a few pods
of garlic, and a few dried chillies. Once in a while you must put out the jars
in the sun.” Geeta stared wide-eyed and said, “Really?” Geeta seemed to fall
from the skies in surprise. Once Chhotda’s childhood friend Khokon had come
Geeta not only looked like a small baby, she also sounded like one. A heavy burden of hair was on her head. Her nose was as sharp as a parrot’s beak. Her lips were like Aphrodite’s, actually closer to home, her lips were more like split chillies. She had small teeth like mice and a lean neck, like a crane. She had tiny hands, tiny feet and a petite body. No one called a dark girl beautiful, but we thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world.
When the big drums heralding the Pujas began to beat, we whispered to our baby, “The Pujas have started from today.” Geeta fell from the sky. “Really? I didn’t know!” she said Clucking our tongues in sympathy, we felt that having married into a Mussalman household, she was not being able to enjoy the Pujas. We could attend all the Pujas throughout the year, moving from one community celebration to another. On Ashtami and Rath Melas, we could buy sugar candy toys and wheat crispies. However, since Geeta had converted from Hindu to Mussalman, we felt very sad for her as she would no more be able to do so. Suddenly, Chhotda came running and said, “Its late Geeta, quickly, wear that sari of yours”.
“Which sari?” Geeta asked in surprise.
“The one I bought yesterday, that one”.
“The one you bought yesterday? Which one?”
“Arrey, your Puja sari!”
“What do you mean by Puja sari? What all you say!”
Having noted my presence with a slant of his eyes, he laughed in embarrassment and said, “You know that blue sari you have, the one your mother gave you, wear that one”.
“Say that then. Instead of saying that, why did you say that you had bought it? Where do you have money that you can buy anything! You can’t earn a penny and yet you talk big!”
“Hurry up, its getting late”.
“Late for what, where are you going?”
“We have an invitation at Babua’s house, have you forgotten?”
Dressing Geeta up like a fairy in blue, Chhotda left. These outings happened quite often. Visits to the houses of old friends, Chipachosh members and new friends at the Golpukur Par adda sessions. But they didn’t only spend time visiting friends’ homes. They attended various functions also and enjoyed themselves at music concerts, dance recitals, theatre, and cinema. In fact, they didn’t even miss jatras if possible. Seeing all this I was filled with longing. Chhotda had sold his guitar. The reputation he had in town as a good guitarist was disappearing like cotton wool in the wind, but it did not seem to bother him at all. He was living and eating in his father’s hotel with his wife but that there was another life beyond, for which he should be looking frantically for a job …
After the Pujas, Yasmin returned from school and gave me some news secretly. On Puja day one of her friends had seen Geeta entering her parents’ home in Peonpara. Followed by Chhotda. I talked to Chhotda about the incident, and was cautioned that no one, not even the birds, should get hold of this news. The birds did not get to know. The birds did not even get to know that very often when Baba went to the bathroom in the morning, Chhotda would stealthily enter his room as if he had to fetch something he had left there. Or, as if he had some very important matter to discuss with Baba; his face would have such a calm yet serious look. Meanwhile, from the pocket of the trouser hanging on the rack, he would pick the change, whether ten taka or twenty. His hands did not shake to remove even fifty. Ma saw everything, but pretended she hadn’t. I trembled with fear at Chhotda’s daring. To gauge what would be the outcome, if he got caught, required the kind of courage which neither Yasmin nor I had.
The tree-climbing Geeta not only jumped on trees, she jumped under them too. In order to teach us dance, she would make Yasmin and me get up from the study table and move around the whole house tapping ‘ta ta thoi thoi’, with our feet. If Yasmin and I did not believe that we were soon to become ‘great danseuses’ Geeta certainly did. As soon we heard Baba return, we left our dancing and ran helter-skelter to sit at our study tables. The disturbance caused by our rushing around touched Baba’s body like the wind. Almost every night, before going to bed, he would call me and ask in a cool voice, “Have you eaten?”
Clutching the drapes of the door, I would reply, “Yes”
“Have you studied?”
“Have you played?”
The answer ‘yes’ was almost at the tip of my tongue. Swallowing in time I would use another word, “No”.
“Have you gossiped?”
Baba looked at me in astonishment. “Why not?”
Forget the other word, no word came to me at that moment.
“Why haven’t you gossiped now that there is no dearth of friends in the house?”
I began to twist the curtains on the door around my finger.
Baba said, “Adda is a good thing. You don’t have to study, or pass exams. Look at Chhotda, what a beautiful life he leads! He has to do the useless job of studying no more.”
I was now untwisting the drapes from around my finger.
“When I leave home tomorrow, you will sit down to gossip, have you understood! Till I return, you will continue to gossip, have you understood what I am saying?”
Normally, when Baba made you understand something, you had to nod your head and say, “Understood”. But now I clearly realized it would be very dangerous to say that.
Baba feared that in Geeta’s company our studies would suffer badly. He had already got the door in my room adjoining Chhotda’s locked. So they were using the verandah door. However, the day Chhotda’s friend Khokon spent the night, he slept on Chhotda’s bed. Consequently, Geeta had to sleep on mine. It was only a question of one night, nothing much. Though, it may have been nothing much to us, it certainly was not so to Baba. He woke up late at night to drink some water, and was pacing from one room to another, when he discovered Geeta in my bed. He screamed, shouted, threatened and roared and turned the silent night into a clamorous afternoon. Geeta was compelled to spend the rest of the night on the same bed as Chhotda and Khokon.
Even though Baba
tried his best to remove Geeta forcibly from our proximity, our attraction
did not diminish, instead it grew. We would ignore our studies and wait on her
all day just to make her smile. If she asked for her shoes, or comb or water I
would put it before her. If she broke her glass, I would tell Ma it had broken
because my hand had knocked it over. I saved her from many other misdemeanors
as well. One evening she called us all to the terrace and lit candles on the
railings for Victory Day. She then walked on the railings like any circus girl.
She knew that if she slipped even a little, she would surely fall and crush her
head, still she continued. In fact, she incited us to do the same. Lying
horizontal on the railing, she reached into her blouse and took out a packet of
cigarettes, and a matchbox. She lit the cigarette and took a puff, leaving us
stunned. The people on the road saw her openmouthed. Geeta said, “Let them
look. I don’t care! It is my wish if I want to smoke. Who has anything to say?”
In our house no one smoked cigarettes. I had not even seen any male relatives
do so. In these circumstances, a woman, and that too a new bride, was now
smoking in full view of the neighbours and passersby, lying openly on the
terrace railing. If this reached Baba’s ears, it would be horrifying. Just
visualising what this unmitigated disaster would result in, made my body turn
cold. Geeta said, “Arrey, nothing will happen. Come on, take a pull!” My
voice shook, as I replied “Baba will kill me if he comes to know!” Geeta
was least bothered about what would happen or not if Baba got to know.
She taught me how to smoke. Inhaling deep mouthfuls of smoke I would throw it
out towards the smoky clouds covering the blue sky. My cold body would slowly
turn lukewarm. I felt an odd attraction towards things denied me. “Where did
you get the cigarettes from?” I asked. Geeta just said, “Got them,” wearing
only a slight smile on the corner of her lips. She never said anymore than
that. In this smoke of cigarettes and mystery, Geeta appeared like Devidurga.
I came down from the terrace, washed out my mouth to remove the smoke smell and
I sat down with lips locked. It was not only Geeta I saved from minor household
incidents or accidents, I saved Chhotda as well. Chhotda, out of
dire need, had completely stopped going in the direction of
“Don’t have five taka.”
“Then give me four”
“Don’t have four either”
“Okay, then give me three at least”. If not three then two taka, if not two then one, if not even that, Chhotda did not even leave eight or four annas. He swooped down to pick up anything he could. Secretly, he even removed medicines from Dada’s medicine chest. Even though we knew, we kept these incidents to ourselves. It was like allowing pinworms to eat up our stomachs. Dada went to the bathroom in the morning. Since he normally finished his toilet, shaving and bath in one go it took him at least one hour. Chhotda could at this time, pick the loose change from Dada’s pocket without any fears. Taking money from Baba’s pocket entailed a big risk. Baba had his bath so swiftly, that exactly when he would come out was never known. Moreover, Baba’s room directly faced the bathroom. In comparison, Dada’s room was some distance away, across the verandah and beyond another two rooms. Chhotda’s needs were never satisfied. Under the wood apple tree, where not even the fallen leaves would get to know, Chhotda would walk soundlessly towards the black gate. He would carefully open it and leave, carrying either big paper packets or shopping bags full of medicines under a panjabi or a loose shirt. Initially, he said he needed medicines. There was no end to his physical ailments. However, I questioned him when I saw him taking the medicines out of the house. “Where are you taking these medicines?” Chhotda’s melancholic answer was, “Friends ask for them; they want vitamins”.
Chhotda did not stick to vitamins for too long. Very soon he was removing medicines not only for cough and fever, but even stronger medicines for very serious diseases. Why? Friends want. Why? They want medicines, some for cough or fever, and others for stomach problems, even ulcers. But are friends sick throughout the year!
“Do I have only one or two friends?”
That was true, Chhotda had countless friends. The people who came home looking for Chhotda varied from journalists, poets, playwrights to Chipachosh friends. From students, businessmen and executives to the unemployed - all kinds of friends came. Their ages and sizes varied from ankle high to head high. Some even higher than the head by a couple of feet. I watched them from behind the drapes, watched and wished that like Chhotda, I too could chat with them. That I had neither the courage nor the opportunity to do so was something I realized very acutely.
“You say your friends are always so sick, but they look quite healthy.”
“It’s not just the friends. Their fathers and mothers too are sick. They have no dearth of relatives!”
One day I confronted him. “What do you really do with these medicines, Chhotda! Tell me truthfully!”
Chhotda smiled mysteriously and said, “Why what happened?”
“Nothing, but first tell me what you do with them, otherwise I will tell Dada.” My threat worked.
Chhotda said, “I sell them”.
Chhotda’s words worked, too. I melted in sympathy. I would myself take out expensive medicines, two at a time, from Dada’s chest and hand them to Chhotda, so would Yasmin. As soon as Dada left, Chhotda would immediately enter the room and apart from medicines, would look for any money Dada might have forgotten in his room. Finally, he would take a shirt from the clothes rack, wear it and leave the room. Dada had innumerable shirts, so he never found out. By chance if they met face-to-face at the black gate or on the streets, Dada’s face would darken and he would ask, “What Kamaal? Why are you wearing my shirt?”
Chhotda would say, “I have worn it, but don’t worry I will take it off and keep it back.”
Another day, Dada would ask “Achcha, where is my blue Tetron shirt?” With a vest on top of his trousers and socks on his feet, Dada would go around asking the whole house about his shirt, looking here and there stupidly.
“Who knows, Ma might have taken it for washing”.
“Arrey no. That was already washed and ironed”.
“Then I don’t know.”
“And where is the white shirt, by the way? The one on which Sheila had embroidered flowers on the pocket?”
“Didn’t you wear that yesterday?”
“Arrey no, yesterday I wore a red shirt”.
“Ask Ma, I don’t know.”
Dada would ask Ma. Ma wouldn’t know either.
Wearing a crumpled garish red shirt, Dada would go out very unhappily. He was very busy. Being a representative of the Fisons Company, he had to go to Tangail one day and to Netrakona the next, and after returning from Netrakona, again to Jamaalpur. Dada’s fair face was slowly getting burnt black as he went around in the sun. I felt sorry for Dada as well.
I told Chhotda, “You get a lot of money selling the medicines. Then why do you take two or three taka from me as well?”
“What are you saying? I don’t get so much money! These are doctor’s samples, don’t you see ‘not to be sold’ written on them? The shopkeepers give less than half the price for these,” Chhotda explained to me.
Ma too noticed Chhotda holding the medicine bag and disappearing very often under the wood apple tree. She asked Baba gently, “Can’t a good job be arranged for Kamaal?”
Baba’s tone was also soft. “Yes, I can. I can arrange for him to work as a coolie.”
“What are you saying?”
“Why? A coolie’s job is a good one. Aren’t people living on a coolie’s income? Let him do it. Coolies do not need to study. You only have to carry bags on your head. You do not need to know physics or chemistry.”
Seeing that Baba’s tone was fast changing from gentle to angry, Ma moved away.
Geeta was always wearing new saris and going out with Chhotda. She had a lot of new cosmetics. Seeing all this, Ma told Chhotda, “Well, Kamaal. You do not even have a good pant or shirt. You wear Noman’s shirts. You can buy a shirt and pant for yourself at least. Even in the house you wear a torn lungi. Why do you punish yourself?”
“Is there any money that I can buy anything?” Chhotda said with a glum face.
“Why isn’t there any money? Don’t you work?”
“The money I get from work doesn’t even pay for a rickshaw.”
“For your wife you seem to buy things alright.”
“For Geeta? I can’t give Geeta anything. Whatever she has is her own. Her mother gives her.”
“Listen Kamaal. We do not ask anything of you. You buy for your wife that is a good thing. If you don’t give your wife, who will! What I’m saying is buy something for yourself, too. You don’t even have a good pair of sandals. Buy one.”
“Give me the money, I’ll buy,” replied Chhotda.
Ma was silent for a long time. When she spoke, it was as if she had finally climbed out of a pool in which she had been swimming all by herself in absolute silence.
“If I had money, I would definitely give you. Who gives me any money?” Ma sighed long and deep as she spoke. “If I could read and write, I would have at least been able to do a job. Would I have had to depend on anyone?”
Thereafter, for two weeks Ma kept begging Baba for money. She went and bought Chhotda a lungi, two shirts and a pair of Bata sandals. However, Chhotda’s wants did not end. He continued to remove medicines both in the morning and evening.
“Accha, has Sharaf been here?” Dada asked with a crease between his two eyebrows.
“What do I know, I have no idea.”
“He must have come.”
“How do you know he did?”
“I’m finding my medicines short in count.”
“Is Sharaf mama taking them or what?”
“He is a big thief. He must be taking them.”
In a cracked voice Ma said, “Look Noman, don’t accuse a person without knowing or hearing anything. Sharaf has not visited this house in the last three months. What makes you call him a thief? What has he stolen?”
“You have no idea, Ma. He had taken fifty taka loan from me, saying he would return it the very next day. It is five months now and there is no sign of him giving it back.”
Ma went to the other room. She sat there alone. Through the window in this room the breeze blew very strongly. What conversation Ma had with it, who knows. None of us understood Ma’s pain. Taking up Dada’s cue, I said, “Sharaf mama is really a thief. He came the other day. I left him in the room just for a little while and went out. I returned to see my gold earrings missing. I had kept them on top of the table.”
“Then those earrings of yours were taken by Sharaf only,” Dada was sure.
Dada of course ultimately solved the mystery of his periodically disappearing medicines. If he ever entered Chhotda’s room for some reason, his eyes fell on the clothes rack. Picking up six or seven of his shirts, he would leave the room. Out on the verandah, he would show them to Ma and say, “I found these on raiding Kamaal’s room”.
Seeing all this, Geeta told Chhotda, “Can’t you die? Why do you have to live this life! If you have the capacity, go buy some shirts. If you can’t buy them, then remain naked.” On hearing this Chhotda exposed his black gums and laughed. Geeta said in a subdued tone, “Go on! Laugh! You have no self-respect. Everyone at home insults you but you learn nothing. Why have you brought me into this hell?”
No one at home had the capacity to understand Geeta’s moods and temper. One moment she was dancing and laughing and the next she was sitting with a long, gloomy face. Sometimes she locked the doors and stayed in bed the whole day in her room. At mealtimes Ma would stand in front of the closed door and call, “Oh, Afroza, Afroza! Get up. Aren’t you going to eat anything? If you don’t eat you’ll feel ill. Get up Afroza and have your food.” Geeta Mitra alias Afroza Kamaal would make a bitter face and would wake up only after being called several times. She would then eat and drink and go back to sleep. After a long time, Ma had got her younger son back. This child who was weaned late, spoke late, a semi-lisping, semi baby and his wife were now being given food cooked personally by Ma. She not only served them herself in their room but if possible fed them with her own hands as well. Ma put in every effort just to make her half-Hindu half-Mussalman daughter-in-law happy. If she was happy, Ma felt Chhotda would also be happy. Either Ma tried really hard to win Geeta’s heart over, because it was not possible to win anyone else’s at home, or maybe by spoiling her Ma wanted Geeta to get used to this household. After all, she was completely unused to Baba’s bullying and intimidation. On returning home, Chhotda would go straight to his small room without so much as looking in any other direction. If I ever pushed open the half closed door, I would see Geeta lying down facing the wall, while Chhotda would be petting her all over. Like a holy man in a trance, he would be chanting, “Geeta, Geeta, Geeta! Oh Geeta!”
Chhotda was constantly handed lists. Geeta needed blouses, saris, lipsticks, rouge, powder etc. Chhotda’s wan face looked even more so. The skin of his lips was so dry they had started to chap. He never spoke to the people in the house unless required. He was completely oblivious to everything else.
Baba, on hearing of Chhotda’s job, heaved a long sigh and said, “To one who digs his own grave, what can anyone say?” No, no one can say anything. Chhotda had really dug his own grave rather deep. A journalist now, he would leave in the morning with a diary in his hand. Returning in the afternoon, he would have lunch and go out again. He came home in the evening sometimes carrying a sari, or a blouse or cosmetics for his wife. The minute he came home, Ma would go into the kitchen to get food. The days he returned only in the evening, Ma would be waiting with the table laid out. Chhotda would emerge from his room with a drawn face to eat. No, not alone, he would be holding Geeta around the waist and dragging her to join him at his meal. Geeta, while trying to untangle herself, would say, “What is there about my food! I can do without it.” Yet, Geeta had not only eaten with us already, she had even taken a long nap. However, her face looked so wan that Chhotda was made to think his beautiful wife was turning into a stick, deprived of food. Since Geeta would not eat, Chhotda would not eat either. Ma would say, “Since he is asking you to, why don’t you eat once more with him Afroza?”
“No, no. I will not eat.”
Chhotda would pull Geeta to the table and make her sit beside him. He would mix rice and vegetable and feed her. Geeta would take the food in her mouth with her nose and mouth crinkled up, as if poison was being given to her. She would keep the poison in her mouth, neither chewing nor swallowing it. Chhotda stroking her head and back would start saying, “My precious, my jewel, eat a little. If you don’t eat, I won’t either.”
Geeta refused to swallow the morsel. Chhotda refused to eat. He got up. Ma almost ran up from the kitchen to the dining room, a bowl in hand, a bowl full of meat. “What happened? I just got you more vegetables. Why did you get up? Come on eat. You haven’t eaten the whole day, Kamaal!”
Chhotda would say with a small face, “No, Ma. I have eaten outside.”
Ma would sit sadly at the dining table with Chhotda’s uneaten rice and vegetables in front of her.
Ma’s eyes were like deep pools with tiny currents on the surface.
Till just the other day, Ma had given Chhotda a bath in the courtyard, made him sit on a stool and scrubbed his back. Now, Chhotda had his own bath. Ma would say very often, “What’s wrong? Why is there so much dirt accumulating on your heels? Don’t you scrub them?” Ruffling his hair, Ma would rub her fingers behind Chhotda’s ears, shoulders and neck and say, “Warts have developed.” Ma wrinkled her nose and spat in the courtyard. Chhotda looked neither at his ankles, nor at Ma. He only looked at Geeta. Why was Geeta’s face so glum? Geeta’s face was not gloomy a little while ago. She had been playing ludo with Yasmin and eating egg-pudding. It seems she hadn’t had egg-pudding for a long time. On her complaint, Ma had quickly made it for her. After the pudding, she had wanted payesh made with date jaggery. Ma had made even that for her. Ma had lit an earthen stove by blowing into it and had cooked on dry leaves in the absence of khori ,firewood. She had then served the meal on the table. Chhotda was sitting with Geeta on his lap, kissing her lips. He was kissing her and saying, “Why are you so glum? What’s happened?” Geeta sighed very deeply and gave no reply. As soon as Chhotda came home, Geeta’s smiling face would suddenly turn weepy. Her face looked as though she hadn’t eaten the whole day, not even drunk water. The look on her face suggested as though the people at home were always abusing her in unspeakable language. Whatever time Chhotda spent at home, he spent it trying to make Geeta’s drawn face pliable and in trying to bring a smile on the weepy face. His days and nights were occupied bending over Geeta. Ma noticed it. We saw it, too. Ma sighed heavily in secret. We were more fascinated with the love story being enacted in our own home than with those in novels and cinema theatres. Never before had we ever seen any one embracing another in front of a whole houseful of people. Touching lips to lips!
Yasmin and I would look at Geeta in amazement. Geeta took out ironed saris to wear at will. She wore high heels, she applied lipstick, she wore a dot on her forehead and had a bath with scented Lux soap. Everything about her was different. We washed our hair first with local Bangla soap, then with the bath soap. From our childhood, Ma had taught us to wash this way. If one used the bath soap to wash dirty hair, then the soap would not last long, hence the economy. Baba sent mostly Bangla soap home. The scented bath soaps came only once in a while. Ma had to economise in all things. Ma explained that Baba’s wealth was not for one household alone. He had to look after his parents and siblings in the village and also his second wife’s family in the town. Ma had to cook two kinds of meals— one kind for all members of the house and the other for herself and the domestic servants. In that other kind, except for stale daal, dried fish curry or vegetables, if anything else was available, it was at the most the tiny kachki fish or tangra-putti curry. If fish or meat was cooked, it was only for us. That meant Baba, we brothers and sisters, and the newly arrived Geeta.
We knew Geeta from before her marriage, she was not new to us, but her arrival as Kamaal’s wife made her appear different at Aubokash. Covering her head before Baba, uncovering it before Ma, her unrestricted antics before us, her cheerless face before Chhotda, everything about Geeta aroused Yasmin and my catlike curiosity. Of married life, what we had seen at the most was Ma and Baba’s. The relationship between Baba and Ma was bound by accounts of oil, salt, rice and daals. I had never seen them close together or exchanging any sweet words or going out. In fact, they didn’t even sleep in the same room now, let alone the same bed. After Ma’s small room was arranged for Chhotda and Geeta to stay, her existence became like that of a refugee. One day she would be in my room, on another she would make her bed on the drawing room floor. Baba was the head of the household, Ma had to follow his orders, and run the house as he directed. That was the norm. Used to this system, we noticed in shock, a couple before us, where the husband was constantly alert to the welfare of his wife. This was very different from Baba, no doubt. Ma noticed what was happening, so did we. Yasmin and I were full of curiosity. Ma wasn’t. Ma soon realised that her baby boy, her lisping son had left his mother’s lap and arms forever. In Chhotda’s whole world and in his life, at that time, there was no one but Geeta. His whole world revolved round making Geeta happy, whatever it would take. To him now his parents, brother and sisters were of no importance. Ma sat sadly alone on the verandah, sighing deeply once in a while saying, “I do not know when Kamaal comes home, when he leaves. He no longer calls me, nor does he call out to me ‘Ma, I’m going … Ma I’m back’.”
One day Geeta
suddenly took the decision to move to
Chhotda had friends all over town. If they came looking for Chhotda at home, he normally took them out with him. Once in a while only, Chhotda sat with friends in the outside verandah room. He would tell Ma to serve tea. Ma would make tea and send Jori’s Ma to serve it. The requirements for making tea were not always available at home. If sugar or milk were not there, either a cup of sugar or milk was borrowed from M.A. Kahhar’s house. Even from as rich a man’s house as M.A. Kahhar, people came to borrow sugar or milk, this borrowing was to us a routine affair. With tea it was mandatory to offer either two toast biscuits or Nabisko biscuits. Biscuits were not always there at home, so then one had to make do with only tea in our hospitality. One night, quite late at night actually, almost twelve-thirty, when one of Chhotda’s friends knocked on the door, he was about to go to sleep. I was awoken by the sound of knocking. Parting the curtains in the drawing room, I saw moonlight kissing the smooth unmoving face of a boy whose doe eyes had a sweet smile in them. Seeing just half of my face peeping out, the boy said, “Aren’t you Nasreen! How grown up you have become!” The boy’s shining eyes did not move from my face. I shyly lowered mine.
“You don’t remember me? I am Zubayer.”
I did not make any reply. Zubayer asked, “Do you like songs?” In a low voice I said, “Yes, I do.” I was still standing when Chhotda said, “Go inside, tell Ma to make two cups of tea.” Ma was sleeping, I shook her awake saying, “A friend of Chhotda has come. Give them two cups of tea.” Ma turned over and said, “Tell Jori’s mother”. Jori’s Ma was curled up like a dog on the floor. Waking her up, I said, “Make two cups of tea”. Sleepy eyed, Jori’s Ma went into the kitchen and stuffing dry jackfruit leaves into the oven lit the fire for the tea-water. The water boiled but where were the tea leaves, sugar, or even the milk! Ma knew where they were. I called Ma again, “Get up and make the tea, the water is boiling.”
Ma again turned to sleep, “Don’t bother me so late at night, I’m not feeling very well.”
Ma did not get up. She asked if Baba had returned. When I told her that he hadn’t, she said, “He’s spending the night with that woman.” Giving up, I lay flat on my bed and stared helplessly at the beams. Zubayer was singing in a wonderful voice. On the threads of silence, the melody of the song was floating into the room. A tune that did not awaken anyone yet did not let me sleep. I wished I could listen to the songs the whole night, completely absorbed, sitting close to Zubayer, washed in the moonlight, oblivious of the whole world. At at night, Zubayer left after singing, “I will go away soon, but never let you forget me.”
The next day Chhotda came home in the evening and lay down on the bed quietly.
“Why are you lying down at this odd time?”
“I am not feeling well.”
“Yesterday – Zubayer who came, my friend – I was meeting him after many years.”
“He is very good looking and sings beautifully as well.”
“Early this morning Zubayer committed suicide.”
Something cold, I don’t know what, moved out from within my breast and spread all over my body in moments. The girl with whom Zubayer had been in love, had been forced by her father to marry someone else, Chhotda informed me in a thin voice. Last night, Zubayer had not spoken one word about that girl. He had said, on such a wonderful full moon night, he had not felt like being all alone in his room. That is why he had come out. He was dying to sing songs. When Zubayer was singing, Chhotda was sitting beside him, dozing. Zubayer had wanted to sing more songs, but Chhotda had told him to leave as he just couldn’t stay awake anymore. Suicide and love are very closely connected. Chhotda too had swallowed poison before his marriage. He survived only because he was removed to hospital in time and the poison was pumped out from his stomach by a tube.
I was unable to sleep for quite a few nights after Zubayer’s suicide. I kept thinking that piercing through the night, a song was floating towards me, “I will go away soon, but will not let you forget me.”
TALES OF TINY SORROWS
Baba may not have liked anything about Ma, but he was very fond of one of her limericks. In a good mood, he would ask Ma to repeat it. Ma would laugh and while swaying from side to side, would recite it:
One paisa of oil,
On what did it get spent?
On your beard and my feet
Some more on your son’s physique.
The children’s weddings took place
Songs were sung for seven days
Some pitiable women indoors went
And none of the oil was found to be left.
Ma had windswept rough hair with no oil or soap ever used on it. She tied the strands at the back with a string, if it was available. She normally used old ribbons discarded by Yasmin and me, if not, then a string. After a bath too, she would tie her wet hair at the back of her neck. As a result, her hair shed even more. Ma used to have very thick long tresses at one time, now no more. She lamented their loss, but what remained, from lack of care kept falling, but she never looked back. When Ma told me to take care of my hair, I told her, “What is the point of taking care now? My hair is like yours, thin.” I told her regretfully also about my small eyes. “Yasmin’s eyes are so beautiful; she’s inherited Baba’s eyes. Mine are like yours.” I commented on my nose as well, “My nose is not sharp. How can it be? After all, I’ve inherited it from you.” If I was a little fair in complexion, it was thanks to Baba, and any darkness was because of Ma. I gradually began to seriously believe that whatever defects there were in my appearance, were inherited from Ma. “I’m lucky to have got Baba’s chin. There is a dimple in the chin. The girls say because of this I look pretty. Because I’ve got a little of Baba’s looks, at least I appear human.” One day, after looking for a long time at Ma, I asked, “Ma, where is your neck?”
“What do you mean, where is your neck?”
“You don’t have a neck. Your chin goes straight down to your chest. You don’t even have shoulders. That’s why your blouse keeps slipping off.”
Opinions on my
features and physique were not a new thing in the family. Ever since I became
aware of things I would find different parts of my body, eyes, nose, ears,
lips, the lengthy details of my figure, my complexion etc. being examined,
seriously discussed and compared by relatives. If anyone came visiting too, the
same thing happened. In case someone saw me after a long time, they would
immediately say, “Good, this girl is growing really tall. She has got her
father’s physique.” Or, “What’s wrong? Why is she turning so dark?” Eyes, nose,
ears too were critically examined and opinions were expressed on which was good
or which bad, which was like Baba’s or like Ma’s or whether like
anyone from Baba or Ma’s side of the family. Ma too would
say, “Yasmin’s hands and feet are like her paternal aunt’s.” When Jhunu khala
came visiting from
When bath soaps came home, Ma kept them for the children. She never got any herself. If body odours started she would have a bath with washing soap. Months would pass and Baba would not send coconut oil. There was no khori. Ma would light even the oven with dried coconut leaves and branches. These did not light very well but Baba had clearly said, “You have to put only coconut leaves and branches. Coal is very expensive.” Because khori costs so much, Ma had to gather the leaves falling from the trees and store them. Rashid, the dab-wala ,tender-coconut seller would come and would scramble quickly up the coconut tree like a squirrel being chased. Tying ropes, he would drop tender and ripe coconuts on the ground. After which he would clear the trees, free of charge. Rashid’s job was to buy our coconuts and sell them at a profit in the markets. Rashid came every three or four months to our house to buy the coconuts. After he cleared the trees and left, there would be piles of coconut leaves in the courtyard and fields. Ma would then sit with her iron cutter next to these huge coconut branches, and take out one stick at a time and make up brooms to sweep the courtyard, clean the bathrooms and dust the beds. The leaves and stems would then be collected together. If it rained, she would run back and forth to heap the coconut leaves and branches, jackfruit leaves, mango leaves, jamun leaves drying in the courtyard, onto the kitchen verandah. Ma’s torn sari tore even more. The old mattress on Ma’s bed had torn and hard cotton lumps had come out. The mattress was heavy on one side and light on the other. If you lay down on it, you would think you were lying on the stones on the railway tracks. Ma had been talking of a new mattress for a long time, but who was bothered about what Ma said! Ma’s mosquito net had big holes. To say ours didn’t have holes would be wrong, they did but they were tiny. Ma had mended the small holes in our nets. It was not possible to mend the ones in her own mattress. Everyday Ma’s body would be covered with mosquito bites. Ma spoke of a new mosquito net for quite a few years, Baba did not bother. When the net finally came, she hung that on our bed, and hung the old hole-ridden net on her own.
While cooking at home, if one day there was salt, then there were no onions. If there were onions then there was no turmeric. If there was turmeric then there was no oil. Baba would angrily shout whenever he heard, “Not there.” “Didn’t I just buy oil day before, where did the oil go?”
“It was used in cooking.”
“A whole bottle of oil finished in two days of cooking?”
“Not two days, the oil was purchased two weeks ago.”
“How could one bottle finish even in two weeks?”
“Do you know how much cooking is being done?”
“Stop the cooking. There is no need to cook anymore.”
“I’m not worried about myself. What will the children eat?”
“The children don’t need to eat. They are not exactly overwhelming me with any great happiness. It is better not to have children than have this kind.”
Ma’s life did not attract me in any way, Baba’s did. Baba had a lot of power. If he wanted to, he could starve all of us. If he wished to, he could also give us all the satisfaction of a well-fed stomach. If he desired, he could keep everyone on their toes with fear, or he could himself speak and laugh and make everyone happy. Nothing was done in the house according to Ma’s wishes. Ma’s world was very small. Apart from the torn saris, torn mosquito nets, torn blankets, lumpy mattresses and the blowing into an earthen stove, Ma’s life was also an oilless-soapless existence. With this life, she sometimes ran to a Peer’s house. Sometimes to Nanibari. Apart from these two houses, Ma had nowhere else to go. At home, the only regular visitor for Ma was Nana. When Nana visited towards afternoon, Ma would scrub him, give him a bath and make him lie down after a meal. Whenever there was no fear of Baba coming home, Ma would make Nana sit for a meal. Even if we saw Nana eating, Ma would get very embarrassed. Before saying anything else she would state, “I’m feeding Bajaan my portion.” Now, no one ever came from Peerbari. Whichever other house they might visit, they would not go to a kafir’s house. If any mama or khala came home, Baba would look at them sharply. That Baba did not like any of them visiting was clear, not only to Ma, but to us too. If any relative of Ma visited, Baba would call aside the servants and find out whether Ma had given them anything or not. Whether she had fed them, and if so, what did she serve, so on and so forth. The servants also understood that Ma’s relatives were unwelcome in this house. Chhotku had got a job as Munshi in Peerbari. One day he came to Aubokash wearing a very long panjabi and skull cap. Baba had thrown him out. When the people in Ma’s world began to get thrown out from this house, Ma became very lonely. She began to fill up her world with animals and birds. Ma wanted to raise hens. Ma would relay her wishes to Baba everyday while massaging mustard oil into his body. Baba, of course, did not call these desires, he called them nagging. “Why? What will you do with hens?” “Hens will lay eggs, these eggs the children will be able to eat. The eggs will hatch into chicks then they will grow.”
Ma’s dream finally came true. As soon as Baba understood that it would be to his advantage if ten hens could be had from one, he bought four hens for Ma. Ma made a coop for the hens with her own hands. In the morning, she would open the coop and personally feed them tidbits. The hens walked all over the courtyard and dirtied it. Ma waited. One day the hens would lay eggs. Under Baba’s bed, spread out on a jute cloth were kept onions and potatoes. Next to them, Ma placed a basket. In this basket lined with straw, a red hen roosted the whole day. One day I saw one mother hen followed by many chicks walking all around the house, verandah and courtyard. The chicks looked so pretty, you wanted to pick them up in your hands. Ma said, chicks didn’t grow if you held them in your hands. Ma was overjoyed seeing the chicks. But though Ma counted twelve chicks while putting them back in the coop, the next day two were missing. It was surmised that while Ma was walking behind the hens in the courtyard, a cunning mongoose took the opportunity to catch and eat them. This mongoose lived behind the tin shed in some hole. At sudden intervals, one could see it running.
to rear ducks as well. Baba snarled about the ducks too and said, “Why
ducks now?” Ma took a long time to explain why the ducks were needed.
Baba rejected Ma’s proposal. Ma placed it before Nana.
Nana bought two ducks and delivered them to our house. One white duck and one
brown swan. When the ducks came home, only two of the twelve chicks had
survived. The others were lost to disease, dogs and mongoose. The swan laid an
egg. Ma made the red hen roost that egg. The egg hatched and a duckling
emerged. The duck went swimming in the waterhole. Behind the kitchen, just
beyond the small wooden gate, on the boundary wall meant for the sweeper, was
the bathroom of Prafulla’s house on the left. On the right was a muddy water
body covered with waterweeds. To call it a pond would be too much, though a
waterhole did not exactly describe it but it was one. A kind of waterhole, a
fishless, dirty, muddy, snake and leech infested hole. The ducklings walked
alongside the chicks; they looked similar, both were yellow in colour as well.
It was difficult to tell which were ducklings and which were chicks. Ma’s ducks
and hens did not last very long. The eggs had to be fried for people at home.
As soon as the chicks grew a little, Dada would say, “The mongoose will
eat them up anyway, it is better you use plenty of onions and roast a hen for
me, Ma.” Ma cooked the hen and secretly wiped her tears. Whenever
there were guests, someone would say, “What can be served, there isn’t
anything. Okay, let a hen be slaughtered.” Ma would look dreamily at the
hens playing and ask, “How do you slaughter house reared hens?” Dada said,
“Say Allahoo-Akbar, slice the end of the neck and slaughter, Ma. Very simple.”
Ma’s pet hens were constantly used in satisfying Dada’s palate,
in filling up our stomachs and in serving guests until none were left. Ma had
never put a piece of either her pet chicken or ducks into her own mouth. She
would make roast potatoes and eat her meal. The duck and hencoop was empty
before even a month was over. Not just the ducks and hens, we constantly ate
bottle-gourd, beans, pumpkin, cauliflower, cabbage, tomato and other greens
from Ma’s plants. Except for rice, daal, oil and salt in months
and years, nothing major had to be bought from the market. Whatever fruit Baba
brought home, Ma would plant the seeds in the ground. From these
planted seeds grew the dalim ,pomegranate, the fazli mango, the
star apple, the red guava, even the lychees. Suddenly, shaking herself out of
her grief for the ducks and hens, Ma one day went and got two kid-goats.
Feeding them milk in bottles like human babies, Ma nurtured the kids
till they were full grown goats. As soon as they grew up, the two goats began
to eat up Ma’s fruit trees right to the roots. Ma put barriers.
The goats jumped over the barriers and extended their overlordship. Ma desperately
tried to save her trees on one hand and keep the goats happy on the other. The
two goats were named Lata ,creeper and Paata ,leaf. Lata and
Paata had a wonderful life eating up their namesakes wherever available. Ma cared
for Lata and Paata so much that she would bring them into her own room in case
they got bitten by something while sleeping at night in the courtyard or
verandah. Ma’s room would be awash with the cries of the goat and their
urine and faeces. I myself chose to climb up the jackfruit tree and pluck
leaves for Lata and Paata. If Lata ate jackfruit leaves, then Paata didn’t. Her
face would look very sad. Her name Paata got wiped out when I began calling her
Bairagi, the Stoic. Bairagi got lost one day. He was grazing in the field.
Someone had opened the gate and had come in, leaving it open. Seizing the
opportunity, Bairagi left home, true to his name that meant a recluse. He had
forsaken the bonds of home and family. The whole colony was searched. He was to
be found nowhere. Ma went looking in Akua’s cowshed, where stray cows
and goats found on the streets were collected and kept. Not there. Ma cried
her heart out, went to the Mazaar , shrine of the old Peer,
across the river and poured out money, lit a candle, and asked the blessings of
the Peer, so that Bairagi would forget his renunciation and return home. The Mazaar
of the old Peer was an amazing one. It was on the banks of the
Everyone left Ma and went away. Ma sat alone with her torn sari, unruly hair and rough skin. She tossed from side to side on her lumpy mattress and under her torn mosquito net. Ma’s lungs were full of cough. She would cough and spit out the phlegm on the floor of the room itself. I felt nauseated. Ma had wanted someone for herself, if not human then at least an animal or a bird. The humans certainly did not stay, but neither did the animals or the birds. From morning to night, Ma cooked for us, fed us, cleaned the house and washed the clothes. We would eat, make merry and keep busy with our studies, games, music etc. but for Ma there was no one, there was nothing. That was how it was. Ma was to do her duty. She did too. After finishing her household duties, Ma would sit alone and read the Darood ,invoking Mohammad’s name, trying to put her mind to the teachings of the Quran. That Baba had really married Razia Begum, that it was not a falsehood, was something she kept reiterating. On her way to and from the Peer’s house, it seems Ma had very often seen Baba on the road to Naumahal. I believed that whatever Ma said against Baba, she made it up. No matter how distant a person Baba was and how much I was cowed down by his power and personality, a kind of respect for Baba remained with me. This did not die even in the very worst of times when I bore his boxes, blows, slaps and took the whippings on my back. Even after hearing Ma’s complaints, we did not react. At least I wasn’t in the habit of believing what did not happen before my eyes. I never thought of Ma as anyone but a woman of mean understanding and one who cried unnecessarily for every little thing. Ma couldn’t possibly have any brains, otherwise why did she believe in Allah Rasool! If she did, why did she sit alone with Aman kaka in the room and whisper under the pretext of giving him advice? Baba stopped Aman kaka’s visits to this house. Aman kaka’s wife came one day and informed Ma that her husband was working in Gaffargaon and had recently married a woman there. Ma replied in an unaffected voice, “He is a man; he will.” Ma apparently had no respect for any man. Yet, as soon as Baba called, how Ma ran to him like a hen! Ma’s sitting around, lying around, walking about, running and going, everything appeared extremely disgusting to me.
Everyone was busy
at home. Baba was occupied with his patients and landed property in the
village. Dada was busy with his job. Chhotda was occupied with
Geeta. Geeta after roaming around the Physics department for a few days, gave
up her chance of becoming a physicist, and had poured her whole body and soul
into the art of dancing. She was going to
Baba heard and said, “What a drama over nothing.”
Ma had softly asked Baba many times, “Is there no treatment for piles?”
Baba had said, “No.”
“So much blood is lost. The stools are full of blood. Isn’t it dangerous to lose so much blood?”
In a grave voice, Baba replied, “No.”
Ma had been wearing torn slippers for quite some time. Baba was told about buying her a pair. Baba pretended not to have heard. If Ma had to go somewhere, she wore either mine or Yasmin’s slippers. In the house, verandah and courtyard, she was of course barefoot. People at home hardly ever noticed what Ma didn’t have or what she needed. A wastrel and vagabond like Nana, however, noticed Ma’s slipper-less life. One day, he came bringing a pair of white cloth slippers, which he had bought for Ma. Nana had no idea that women never wore such shoes. But Ma was delighted with the pair. She showed everyone at home the shoes her Bajaan had brought for her. That day Ma made payesh with more sugar for Nana, even though she knew he was forbidden sweets. Nana ate, passed his hands over his daughter’s head and asked for blessings so that his daughter went to behesht, heaven. Nana described the food in heaven. “The food you ate once in heaven, you could continue eating for the next forty-thousand years. Even the belch would carry the aroma.” Listening to Nana’s description I was sure Nana observed Namaz and Roza only to greedily sample all the good food in heaven.
The Naumahal Peer’s fame had spread so much that even the rickshaw-wala did not have to be told anymore. “Earlier you had to ask him to go behind the Naumahal Chandu’s shop.” If you now said Naumahal Peer’s house, the rickshaw-wala knew where to go. Earlier, Ma used to pay four annas. The rate increased to eight annas later and even went up to one taka. Ma never had so much money that she could afford to make frequent trips to her parents or the Peer’s house. Very often she had to control her desire to go. The other day, I was ready for school when she asked, “Will you drop me at the corner of the rail tracks?” Looking at her from head to toe, dressed in a single folded sari, with a faded burkha on top, and Nana’s gifted white cloth shoes, I wrinkled my nose and said, “You can always take another rickshaw!”
“I don’t have the fare.”
“Then take the fare.”
“No one would give it to me.”
“Then don’t go today, leave it. Go another day.”
Ma did not
follow my advice. There was no difference between one day and another for Ma. I
had no option but to take Ma along that day. I had to pray with all my
heart and soul that there would be no familiar person on the road. Let no one
see me accompanying someone wearing a faded burkha and sock-less white shoes.
“I never saw you.”
“How could you have?” You were staring at the ground. You looked like a coy family bride.”
“At the Mahakali corner, my rickshaw crossed yours. You were accompanied by your maid.”
I could hear the thud in my breast. It was at the tip of my tongue to say that, ‘No that was not a maid, it was my mother’ but I gulped it down silently. I don’t know who sealed my lips tightly together. The whole day, I wanted to rectify Ashrafunnisa’s mistake, but couldn’t.
On returning from school, Yasmin whispered a secret into my ears. Some girl had told her, “Your Baba has married a second time.”
“What did you say?”
Yasmin said, “I told her my Baba had not married again, it was a lie.”
I too whispered back, “The other day, a girl in my class told me the same thing.”
Ma was sitting unhappily in the verandah. Finding me nearby she said, “Your Baba has married Chakladar’s wife”
I said, “What all you say, Ma!”
“Yes, everyone at Naumahal said so.”
“Who is everyone? How do they know?”
“What have they seen?”
“They have seen the woman living in the house at Naumahal and your Baba is constantly visiting that house.”
“That is not new; you have suspected this for a long time.”
“They have seen your Baba entering with their own eyes. They have even spoken to the woman. She herself has said she is married.”
“If it is nonsense, then why does your Baba go to the house?”
“He can go. Does that mean marriage?”
That visiting someone’s house did not amount to marriage, was an argument I tried to make Ma understand. Why did I do it? Was it so that Ma would not feel bad, or was it my deep faith in Baba that he could not possibly have done something as shocking as this? Or was it because, Baba’s two marriages were so shameful to me that I was desperately trying to refuse to bear this burden of shame. I really didn’t understand.
Ma said, “I had gone to Akua. I met Soheli’s mother. She said she saw your Baba and Chakladar’s wife going to the cinema. Your father never takes me to the cinema!”
“Would you go to the cinema? You were supposed to be following Allah’s path!” Saying this, I moved away from Ma.
In spite of Ma’s grumbles about Razia Begum, she still gave full attention to her cooking. She fed her husband and children. If there was no oil or onions, she cooked without them, her face unhappy. Serving the food, she would say, “How can food taste good without oil or onions! Eat it up somehow today, I’ll see tomorrow if …”
The next day, the oil came but not the onions. With the onions, Baba had sent a bagful of rotten Koi fish from the market. As soon as she opened the bag, Ma detected the smell of the rotten fish. But her children were not to stay hungry because of the smell. She tore a handful of leaves from the lemon tree and put it in the fish curry, hoping to suppress the rotten fish smell with the scent of the lemon leaves. Greens could not hide the smell. Maybe the scent of lemon leaves would but the very presence of lemon leaves made me suspicious. I turned up my nose as soon as I sat down to eat. “Why have you put lemon leaves, Ma? The fish must have been rotten.” A sliver of a smile appeared for a second at the corner of Ma’s lips and immediately disappeared. Ma put an un-broken fish on my plate and said, “The fish were alive.”
“Swear on Allah and say they were alive.”
“It is wrong to swear on Allah on every instance,” Ma scolded mildly.
Dada ate one and took a second fish. I moved away my plate, saying, “The fish is rotten, I will not eat it.”
“How can the fish be rotten?”
Ma called Jori’s Ma from the kitchen, “You tell her, weren’t the fish jumping when you were slicing them?”
Jori’s Ma nodded her head and said, “Yes, they were jumping.”
“Let them. I will not eat fish. If there is something else to eat then give it to me.”
Dada explained to Ma, “If the fish have turned a little rotten, just fry them. If fried, they don’t smell anymore.”
“Nasreen has the nose of a vulture,” Ma said.
When Baba returned that night and was changing from his pants into his lungi, Ma asked him, “For whom are you saving this money?”
“For whom am I saving it? Meaning? I am feeding so many people, educating them. Can’t you see with your eyes?”
“I’m not speaking of myself. I can have even a meal of only daal. I’m speaking of the children! Why do you send rotten fish? They come back hungry from school and can’t even eat their rice.”
“Was the fish rotten?”
“Wasn’t it? The smell almost brought down the house.”
“There are no onions either for the last one month. Is there no money even to buy onions?”
“Didn’t I just send onions a few days back? They finished?”
“A few days back?” Ma took some time to count on her fingers, and replied, “Today is Sunday, even on the Sunday before the last Sunday, cooking was done without onions. The Tuesday before that, you sent onions.”
“Why do they finish so soon? Why don’t you use them economically? Do you have any idea how much onions cost in the market? You don’t earn anything. If you did you would appreciate.”
Ma heaved a long sigh. Was it that she was not earning because she didn’t want to?
Whenever Baba’s medical shop assistant, Abdus Salaam came to deliver the shopping, Ma always called him aside and questioned him. One evening, I found her sitting in the kitchen feeding Salaam fish and rice. “Salaam, eat well, whatever you may eat in the morning, you don’t get any food after that!”
Ma’s habit of feeding this or that person was nothing new. If any hungry beggars came home, she made them sit and fed them as well. Stale vegetables, fermented old rice, dry chillies. They blissfully ate even these. If she heard a landowner had fallen on bad days and was being forced to beg, she would add two pieces of freshly cooked meat too. Ma was a generous person. After Salaam had eaten and left with a happy face, Ma called Dada and me and told us, “Do you know why your father buys rotten fish and sends it? Why he doesn’t get oil and onions home?”
“Why, Ma?” Dada asked.
In the manner of Detective Kiriti Ray revealing an ancient secret, Ma said, “Because he has to send provisions to two places! How can he manage so much! That woman sends her servant to the pharmacy and your father walks to the market himself, shops and sends provisions to her house. He has married that woman. The woman’s younger son even comes and sits at the pharmacy. He pays for his education. He is actually your father’s son. Not Chakladar’s”
I felt uncomfortable listening to Ma’s accusations. So did Dada. He said, “I don’t know what all you keep saying, and from where you hear all this to scream about.”
“From whom do I hear? Okay, why don’t you go? She stays in Naumahal. Go to the woman’s house and see. Find out if she has married your father or not, whether he daily sends provisions or not?”
“Yes! Why not? I, of course, have nothing better to do but to go to that woman’s house!” Dada moved away from Ma. So did I. Ma’s complaints were all familiar to us, as were Ma’s sorrows and angers. Ma’s shouts and screams did not arouse any sympathy in us. If anything, they aroused only nausea.
Ma sat all alone. There was no one at home to listen to her sorrows. She called Jori’s Ma and said, “Look Jori’s Ma, I have no peace in this household. My fate was sealed the day I stopped studying, that very day. Today if I was educated, would I be slaving in my own house? The children are all worshippers of their father. They do not even care that I am their mother.”
Jori’s Ma did not understand Ma’s sorrow. In comparison to her own, Ma’s sorrows were nothing. She had been married into a household of three wives. She had been traumatised by the tortures of the co-wives. Her husband had tortured her no less. After Jori’s birth, he stopped giving her food. Finally he beat her and kicked her out of the house. In this household, Ma was at least getting food. The co-wife stayed in another house. Not in the same. To Jori’s Ma, Ma’s house seemed to be a lovely golden one.
At Ma’s words, Jori’s Ma would heave deep sighs. I’m sure they were false.
Even in so much sorrow, Ma still decorated the house. She would rearrange the furniture. I liked this exercise of Ma’s. The rooms always looked new. It felt as though a new life was starting. Not just the house, Ma beautified the courtyard and the field as well. She always decorated them with greens and vegetables, fruit and flower trees. Every season had a different variety. For those trees that were leaning over, a barrier of bamboo sticks was put up. The grass was weeded, the earth was dug up and put back all by Ma herself. Ma loved vegetables and she insisted on reciting verses while feeding us. She always tried to give us fresh fruit and vegetables. Ma thought we would happily dance and eat our greens if we heard her rhymes. Ma was also under the impression that like her, we too, had a special weakness for vegetables planted with her own hands. The whole year around while serving vegetables she would say, “Bottle-gourd from the plants, beans, tomatoes from the plants, this from the plants, that from the plants.”
One day at mealtime I caught Ma as soon as she said, “Gourd from the plants.”
“What do you mean? Bottle-gourd is grown on plants only, as though gourds grow otherwise!”
Ma said, “These are grown on plants, not bought.”
“Are gourds that are bought grown below the ground?”
“Rubbish! Why should gourds grow underground?”
“That means they do grow on plants.”
“Then why do you keep saying it? Even the gourd bought from the markets grows on plants.”
“Arrey, these are from the home garden.”
“Then say so. From the home garden. You can’t even speak properly.”
“I am illiterate, I have not studied. You are educated. You can speak correctly,” Ma said haltingly. Ma’s regrets about her lack of education were lifelong. Just before my SSC exams, when I was bent over a table full of books and notebooks, Ma in a small voice said, “If I could have only taken the SSC privately.”
I laughed, “At this age you want to take the SSC?”
“So many people do.”
“During the disturbances, many people even older than me took the exam. The Government passed them all. That Chakladar’s wife cheated in the exams during that time and qualified the SSC. Your father only made her take the exam.”
That was true.
“Now you can’t cheat, how will you pass?”
“Why should I cheat?”
“Then how will you pass?”
“I will study and pass.”
Suppressing a bellyful of laughter, I said, “Will you remember what you learn?”
“Why not, I will.”
“You are always searching all over the house for keys which you are holding in your hands. How will you remember?”
“If you’d just help me a little with maths, you will see I will qualify. Bangla and English are no problem. History and geography I will learn by rote.”
Ma’s eyes shone with dreams. The dreams remained in the eyes. With dreamy eyes she said, “If I could take the exams I would surely pass. I used to be the ‘first girl’ in the class. I came first in every exam. Even when I got married, my school masters had told me, ‘Don’t give up your studies, Idul.’”
Without any hesitation, I told Ma that she would never understand these difficult subjects; that those times of turmoil were no more there; that one could not do just what one wanted today. Also, that she was too old. At this age if she took her SSC, people would laugh. Ma sighed deeply. Her pride at having been the best student of her school at one time was now hidden under the embarrassment of old age. Ma went and sat alone in another room. There, she talked by herself to the wind blowing through the room.
It reached Baba’s ears that Ma dreamt of taking her SSC exam. Baba laughed aloud. So did we. The whole of Aubokash rang then with the sounds of laughter. Ma gradually began to shrink. Since the floor of this house was made of strong bricks, Ma’s dreams fell on it and broke like glass. Ma finally satisfied her desire to study in another way. At Peerbari, girls learnt Arabic. There was no age restriction. A girl could begin learning at any age. Ma came home from Peerbari with about three Arabic language books. Taking money from Nani, she bought big register copies. On those copies she neatly wrote out the Arabic grammar according to the rules and regulations, just the way we had learnt the English language, ‘He plays, he is playing, he has played, he played, he was playing, he had played, he will play’. Ma’s Arabic handwriting was as beautiful as her Bangla.
“What will you do with learning Arabic, Ma?” I asked.
She smiled sweetly and said, “I will be able to read Allah’s teachings. I will be able to understand and read the Quran Hadith.”
We had exams before us, but we did not study as much as Ma did. She sat up nights and studied. Ma had no letters to write, no gossip. Baba noticed Ma’s studies. One day, as soon as he returned home, he called, “All students, come here.”
Yasmin and I went and stood before Baba. Baba scolded us, “Where is the oldest student of the house?”
I was stunned. I thought I was the oldest student of the house. Couldn’t Baba see me? I stopped twisting the curtain in my fingers and came before Baba’s eyes so he could see me clearly. Of course, unless you stood right before him, he did not consider it correct.
Looking at me, he said, “Call the oldest student.”
“I’m here only,” I said.
Baba said, “Are you taking your Ph. D.?”
“Then go and call the one taking her Ph. D.”
I still couldn’t get who Baba was referring to. Yasmin was sharper than me in such things. She stood at the threshold and called, “Ma, come quickly. Baba is calling.” Ma closed her books and copies and came before Baba. Holding the shopping list Ma had given in his hand, Baba asked her, “How did the salt finish?”
Ma said quietly, “In the cooking.”
“What great feast are you cooking that two and a half sers of salt finished in two days?”
“If you are so interested in knowing, sit in the kitchen and watch how it finishes.”
“Have you any idea of the price of salt?”
Ma made no reply.
Baba gritted his teeth and said, “I will only buy salt next month. This month you all will have to eat without salt.”
“I can eat without salt, your children can’t. They all need extra salt on their plates,” saying so Ma went away. On the table in the verandah, Ma’s books and copies were scattered, the pages fluttering in the breeze.
After returning at night, Baba called Jori’s Ma and in a low tone asked her, “Accha, does Noman’s mother remove onions, garlic, rice, daals, oil etc.?”
“Who knows? I don’t.”
“You haven’t seen her taking anything away?”
“There are so many things she takes.”
“What does she take?”
“How can I see what she puts in her bag? I am a servant, I do my work.”
“Does she take her bag and go out?”
“Of course, she does. Wherever she goes, she always carries one.”
“How big is her bag?”
“A bag is never small; it is always big.“
On her return from Baba’s room, Ma asked Jori’s Ma, “What did he call and ask you?”
“He wanted to know if you carried provisions to your parents’ house.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I didn’t know all that.”
Ma flared up. “You don’t know? Don’t my parents have provisions? Has my father turned into a roadside beggar? Even now, the cooking at my house is done in huge utensils. There is no dearth of food there. Our father may not have built a house, but he never deprived us of food and clothing. He buys big Rahu fish, Bangash fish, Katla fish and brings them home. He does not send rotten fish. In fact, it’s the reverse. I bring money home from my mother. He is making such untruthful allegations about me. Allah’s wrath will fall on him. This wicked man’s pride will be destroyed.”
Ma angrily muttered through half the night. Jori’s Ma sat cross legged on the floor and listened to her.
The next day, Baba went into the kitchen, opened the cupboard and checked what provisions were there. Detailed accounts of what had been bought and when and when what had finished were taken by Baba. As the accounts did not match, Baba got a big lock and put it on the kitchen cupboard. Now whenever anything was required, he would open the lock and give it out. Baba left with the keys in his pocket. From the next day, before leaving home, he would call Ma, open the cupboard, tell her what to cook and measure out the required provisions to her.
In the evening he did the same for the dinner. That is how it went along.
Ma remained alive like a mother. I hardly saw her. When I sat at the study table, Ma left a glass of hot milk, in the afternoon there was sherbet. I saw the milk and sherbet, not Ma. Ma would come out of the toilet and collapse on the stairs, unable to stand because her head was spinning. To the question, “What is wrong?” she would reply in a broken voice, “The bleeding because of the piles is too much, I feel weak”. I never noticed Ma’s health or weakness. I only picked up the word ‘piles’.
“What is piles, Ma?”
“A lump forms in the anal canal, and then if you are constipated, it bleeds.”
“What is the treatment?”
“I have asked your father so many times for some treatment. He never does tell me anything.”
“That is why I say, have wood apple sherbet, vegetables in greater quantities. You don’t want to eat them at all. How will your stools remain soft if you do not eat vegetables! You too are constipated. If your stools remain soft, you do not get the Arsho disease.”
“What is Arsho?”
“Just another name for piles.”
“That means the signboards we see on the streets ‘Here there is treatment for Arsho’ that means this disease?”
Ma slowly got up from the stairs and went to her room. She lay down on the bed with her face turned to the beams. She was very weak. I sat in the next room and thought about the word ‘Arsho’, and kept wondering how such a dirty disease could have such a wonderful name!
That was Ma’s life. We were as used to seeing this life, as Ma was used to living it. One day on hearing the sound of the black gate I ran out only to see Ma speaking to a stranger and then closing the gate.
I asked her who had come.
Someone came looking for Kamaal.
“Who? What was his name?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask.”
“What did he say?”
“He asked me who I was. I said no one. I worked in this house.”
“Why did you say that?”
“This boy may have got shocked to hear I was Kamaal’s mother. I am wearing such a dirty torn sari.”
I kept shut. Maybe Ma was right in telling a lie, I thought. Ma had saved Chhotda’s reputation. If Ma had said she was Kamaal’s mother, I feared that when the boy met Chhotda he would have said, “I saw a maidservant in your house. She said she was your mother! The audacity of maidservants is really increasing nowadays.”
I could neither accept Ma nor reject her. Ma cooked for us, fed us even before we were hungry, saved us from Baba’s spankings saying, “Girls are the household’s Lakshmis, it is not correct to beat them. They are only there for a few days; they will go away to another home.” We survived because of Ma’s intervention no doubt, but the phrase ‘will go away to another home’ inflamed me so much, that my anger was more at my mild and mellow mother than at my ferocious father.
“What does ‘go away to another home’ mean?”
“You have to go away. Won’t you have to, when you get married?”
“No, I don’t have to.”
“How can that happen?”
“It happens. Of course, it does.”
“Does anyone live her whole life at her parents?”
“They do. I do. I will.”
Whenever I heard the word ‘marriage’, my whole body rose in revolt.
“Once a girl gets married, she becomes another’s, Ma. Girls are like guests in their father’s home. Love and take care of them as much as you can. No one knows what is in their fate, happiness or sorrow!”
Even though spoken in a soft tone, Ma’s words pierced me like poisonous arrows. First I am born then my roots spread, all these years I live close to her, and it seems I belong to others. Whereas the boys who were always away, left the house after marriage, or were immersed in dreams of getting married, were more hers than I was! For me, however cruel my Baba was, and ugly and illiterate my Ma, misbehaved and garrulous my sister, I could not think of them as third persons. They were the people closest to me. Some strange person would come along and become more close to me than them! Impossible! I purposely pushed Ma away, closed the door on her face with a bang.
“Ma give me my food, Ma where are my clothes, where for heavens sake is my bath soap, Ma”. Even when I had no rickshaw fare, I took rides relying on Ma to pay for them, when I reached home. “Ma give me three taka,” or “Ma dear, I think I am getting a fever.” This was enough to make Ma touch my forehead, make me lie down, cover my shaking body with a warm quilt, call for Baba to come and check my fever, and give me medicines. Apart from these minor matters, I did not think I required Ma for anything else in my life.
When Baba opened the black gate, I recognized the sound wherever I was in the house. If I had a doubt I looked out of the window to see if it was him. If it was Baba, then I would run back to my place. The problem was that if he found us sitting before our books at in the afternoon, he guessed we had only sat down on hearing him come. Then the opposite happened, before the words of wisdom, came the curses. Of course, if it was before the exams, then whether two in the afternoon or night, we were to be only sitting there. Baba said, “Put glue on the chair and sit, stay awake and study.” Baba came at . When he did, it was not just for me to be alert, but to alert everyone else as well. As for me, I could afford to leave my study room to have a bath. Baba felt baths and meals in the afternoons were permissible. Yasmin on the other hand might be sitting on the topmost branch of the mango tree, in the kitchen or on the terrace. These things Baba would never allow. If he saw anything he did not like, there would be mayhem at home. Yasmin would definitely get a beating. I too would not be spared. To avoid this I alerted all. In fact anyone who spotted him had the unwritten responsibility to call out as quickly as possible, running in from one end to the other, so that wherever one was, one had the time to get back to places acceptable to Baba. For instance, if the maid was resting in the veranda, she would enter the kitchen and begin to wash the utensils, or go to the tap to fill water or do something else. Baba just could not stand anyone sitting or lying down. When the warning came, Yasmin left the crowns she was making out of coconut leaves piled in the courtyard and ran into the room. No one had the time to find out who had heard the warning or who hadn’t. Before one knew where others had gone, one had to take a quick decision about oneself. One had to look after one’s own interest first, after all! After giving the warning, when I was walking towards the bathroom with my towel hanging from my shoulder, I found Ma who had been eating, stop, run into the kitchen to keep her half eaten plate and wash her hands. I entered the bathroom, Yasmin sat down to do sums and Ma took rice in the wicker tray to clean in preparation for the dinner. After coming out of the bathroom, I asked Ma in a low voice, “Has Baba gone?”
“He is lying down.”
“Weren’t you eating? What made you get up?”
Ma, while removing the woodworms from the rice said, “Your father has never been able to tolerate my eating.”
“You can’t be alive if you don’t eat! Doesn’t Baba know that?”
“He does. However, he gets very irritated if he sees me eat before his eyes.”
Just as we would stop playing out of fear of Baba, Ma would stop eating.
After feeding everyone, Ma would sit to eat in the kitchen very late, and whoever was around, maid or daughter, sat with her. This was a sight I was used to. Even at other times, during functions and festivals too, Ma never sat to eat with her husband and children. Why this was so, no one had asked so far. This was obviously not a question bothering anyone’s mind, hence, they hadn’t. When we ate, Ma would stand beside us and serve us. That’s what Ma did and that is what suited her as far as Baba knew and so did we. Ma cooked and served very well, was what everyone believed.
Very often I returned home from school in the evening and ate something because I was hungry. Ma would then be eating her lunch, mixing her rice. I would see a somewhat embarrassed smile at the corner of her mouth. She would take her plate elsewhere or wash her hands saying she would eat later.
I would laugh and say, “Why did you get up? Are you shy?”
Ma gave no answer. Ma somehow never could eat except secretly, she never could. She really felt shy to eat in front of others. If Baba came home of course, Ma did not even eat secretly. Baba had the habit of ferreting out details from every nook and corner. Therefore, no secrets were possible. Even if Baba were lying down, you could not think of playing or chatting, because one could never guess when he would get up, and roam the whole house pussy-footed. Consequently, if he was at home, even fast asleep, no one ventured to do anything Baba might not approve of.
Baba would come home in the evenings without warning. On one such day no one heard the black gate opening, and hence, no warning was called out either. Baba entered the kitchen to find Ma eating.
“How much do you eat? Whole day there is only eating and eating. The fat in your body is increasing with your incessant eating.”
Ma heard this, and putting her plate away, washed her hands.
I heard Baba, so did everyone else at home. To us, it was like Baba telling us when we’d been dozing at our study tables late at night, “How can you feel so sleepy? Whole day you sleep. How much rest do your bodies require? One whack on the back and all this rest will vanish.”
With Chhotda, discussions on art and literature were as engrossing as they were on politics.
“Accha Dada, why did Major Dalim, Rashid and Farookh have to leave the country after the coup?”
“Arrey, underneath that coup, another coup had taken place. Then Dalim and all had no power.”
“And Safiullah? He was the Chief of the Army Staff, why didn’t they kill him? He was on the side of Mujib.”
“Mujib had phoned him at night, to send the army to Number Thirty-Two his residence. Safiullah called Zia. Early morning, Zia came and said, ‘No need to go to Number Thirty-Two.’ Safiullah could do nothing.”
“Safiullah had understood by then that Zia was not following his orders.”
“How could he not! Safiullah was then almost under house-arrest. No one was following the Army Chief’s orders.”
“Who made Zia the Army Chief? Mushtaq? Or did Zia make himself the Chief?”
“They all were in the conspiracy.”
“Khaled Musharraf, who put Zia into jail and took over the powers, was himself killed three days later by Colonel Taher. Then why did Zia kill Colonel Taher? Colonel Taher had after all revolted for the benefit of Zia.”
“Taher had wanted to remove Khaled Musharraf and form a national government. He did not want Zia.”
“Colonel Taher was a Muktijoddha ,fighter in the Liberation Army. He even lost a leg in the war. Can a fighter injured in battle be hanged? Achha, has any leader ever been hanged till today?”
“No. This was the first hanging of a Muktijoddha after the Independence of Bangladesh.”
“I can’t really understand Major Dalim’s differences with Zia.”
“The law and order in the army had completely broken down then. Zia had imprisoned Safiullah in Bongo Bhavan, and declared himself General. Some supported him, others went against him.”
“Did Dalim go against?”
“No. He sent Dalim abroad mainly because Zia had not wanted anyone who had been directly involved in the coup to be around him. Once you got used to doing coups, you wanted to do them repeatedly.”
“So he removed the risk?”
“Yes, you can say that. Before going he had Dalim kill many in jail. Four leaders were killed. He also sent the others on excellent assignments. Dalim was made Ambassador. Dalim was happy, and Zia got what he wanted.”
Ma suddenly entered our discussion and said “Dalim? – Dalims are ripening on the tree, why don’t you eat one!”
I burst out laughing.
“Arrey we are discussing politics, not the Dalim on the tree.”
“What about politics?”
“You won’t understand.”
“All you have to do is make me understand.”
“Do you understand coup? Coup?”
“Coup? In the dark of night, when the Nation’s government is slaughtered, that is called coup isn’t it?”
Ma’s words irritated me so much, that I said “Go now, Ma! You do not have the capacity to understand such discussions.”
Ma went out. There were beggars sitting on the verandah. Sitting with them and sighing deeply, she listened to the details of their miserable lives. She understood their talk, they understood hers. Someone’s house had been washed away by floods, another’s father left home and never came back, someone’s husband had died, another was blind, or handicapped. Someone’s uterus had come out of the body. Ma gave special attention to Dulu’s Ma, whose uterus had come out. Instead of a handful, Ma gave her a quarter kilo of rice. If she saw her hungry face, she would come forward and say, “Dulu’s Ma, have something to eat.” That day too, while I was having a serious discussion about politics in Chhotda’s room, Ma was feeding Dulu’s mother. After eating the rice and vegetables given to her at the verandah, Dulu’s Ma raised her hands to bless Ma. “Allah, give her as many years of life as there are hair on my head. Keep her happy, who has fed me. The one who gave peace to my soul, give her the same peace, Allah. May she live always in peace and happiness with her sons and daughters!”
Ma listened to Dulu’s Ma’s blessings with an utterly expressionless face.
My joy new no bounds once the exams got over. I had unlimited time to do whatever I wished. Watch movies, read storybooks, recite poetry, write verses. However, Baba ordered that no film magazines were to be read. All third rate magazines carrying pictures of film heroes and heroines were banned at home. If one wanted to read, one had to read good journals. Only journals that helped to increase our knowledge were allowed. So, what was the name of this good knowledge disseminating journal? I was very curious to know; at that point I was not particularly critical of any thing. Given a chance, I could read the whole world. The journal of Baba’s choice was called Begum. It started coming regularly to our house. In one day I read the magazine from cover to cover. I learnt how to cook different dishes, to style hair, to grow fruits or flowers in the garden. There was also information about decorating rooms, childcare, even husband care. The next week, the same sort of things appeared in Begum. I didn’t read half of it, and less than half, in the third week. It is not that Begum remained untouched subsequently. In fact our interest in it increased to the extent that the pages tore due to excessive handling. It was Dada who made Begum popular. The minute he saw a copy with the hawkers, he swooped down on it and was the first to pick it up. Then he began pouring over it. Not only did he do so himself, he made the entire household follow suit. It had even happened that five to six black heads had spent a whole afternoon pouring over Begum. Even when the other heads moved away, Dada’s remained. During the lazy evening, right through the night, after all others were asleep, Dada poured over the pictures of groups of girls. Whoever wrote for Begum, whether stories, poems, articles on human or plant care, had their photographs published on one page. To be able to see twenty to twenty five photographs of girls at one go was not a matter of joke. Nothing else gave Dada the joy that Begum did. Every week he would choose a girl from its pages. The very next week this girl was rejected and another chosen. Actually if in the next week’s edition he found some one better than his last week’s choice, then things became complicated. Unable to decide whom to send a marriage proposal to, he would wait for the next week’s copy, just in case he found someone even better. Once he chose a beautiful girl named Dilshad Noor, but on reading this line in her poem ‘The one who has gone is not returning. If he does, I will lay my head on his breast and sleep…,’ Dada pouted and said “No, I can’t marry this one.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Can’t you see she’s waiting for some fellow!”
“Arrey this is only a poem.”
“So what if it is a poem!”
“If you write in a poem that you are flying in the sky, are you really doing so?”
“Even if I am not flying in the sky, I am in my mind. In poetry, you write what you feel.”
So Dilshad was
rejected. When he rejected anyone, Dada looked very despondent. As though the
most difficult to capture bird had just flown out of his hands. Of course, in
Sultana’s case Dada hadn’t felt that way. Dada’s pen friend Sultana, had sent
him a photograph of herself, sitting on a mora ,wicker stool, wearing a
sari. Dada spent many sleepless nights with that photograph, before he decided
that this was the girl he wanted to marry. He had bought new clothes, a new
perfume, and a pair of shoes. Spending two and half hours in the morning, he
bathed, dressed in his new clothes, poured half the bottle of perfume on
himself and left for
“If there is anything really ugly in this world it is that woman.”
“What are you saying? She looked quite pretty in her photograph.”
“Oof! If only you had seen her. A dark, scar faced woman, frail and old. When she laughed, her protruding teeth came out like a rakshas ,witch . Her gums were as black as the underside of a pot. I had never seen a hag before, I have just seen one today.”
“Why, I saw she had long hair way below her hips!”
“Hair? What use is long hair to me?”
After a pause he said, “I think she wore a wig for the photograph. One of her protruding front teeth was also false.”
Dada had carried some presents for Sultana in gift wraps. They came back unopened. Not having eaten the whole day, Dada gobbled his food, washed off the grime of his journey and took a long nap.
Casting aside his dreams of Sultana, Dada began concentrating on Begum from the next day again. I told the hawker of Begum to deliver Chitrali, Purbani and Bichitra as well. However, now that I did not have school, there was no rickshaw fare to save from, there were not even any papers at home to sell to the glassbottlepaperwala and earn a few coins. I was dying to read the magazines, but where was I to find the money to buy them! Like people normally depend on Allah, I depended on Dada. Of course, Dada was not always sympathetic. Dada was not only not worthy of being compared to the benevolent Allah, he was a reputed miser. Where the rickshaw fare was two taka, he would put an eight anna coin in the rickshaw-wala’s hand and send him off with a rebuke. Not only did those at home hear Dada screaming at the rickshaw-wala, so did the whole neighbourhood. This did not bother Dada. In his language, he had been paying eight annas till yesterday.
“Just the other day?” Ma would say, “That was five years ago.”
To Dada, five years seemed ‘just yesterday.’
If Ma had money with her, she gave the rickshaw-wala four instead of two taka. In case the rickshaw-wala described his penury on the way, then Ma would give him not only money, but on reaching home, she would choose a ripe and hardened coconut from the pile under the cot. Giving it to him, she would say, “Eat it with your children.” Seeing the way Ma behaved, Dada remarked, “Ma is a duplicate of Nana. Whatever she has, she gives away to people.”
Dada had certainly not inherited Ma’s nature. Dada’s mind always told him that everyone in the world was out to cheat him. Hence, he too tried various methods of doing the same. It was Dada’s habit to bargain at the shops. Everyone did, but no one could beat Dada at it. I would always be very embarrassed when I accompanied Dada to the shops. If asked for fifty, most people would try and bring it down to thirty or forty. When Dada heard the price fifty, he would say, “Will you give it for three?” The shopkeeper would stare at him open-mouthed. What on earth was the connection between fifty and three! Dada would then progress from three to three and half and upward. The shopkeeper would finally agree to twenty or twenty-one. He agreed alright, but also told him off, “I have seen many customers, bhai, but never one like you. You have cheated me. Forget a profit I haven’t even got my cost price.”
I did depend on Dada, but when his stinginess crossed all limits, I had no option but to follow in Chhotda’s footsteps. Since Dada normally took at least an hour in the bathroom, my trembling hand entered the pocket of his trousers hanging on the rack in his room. As soon as my initiation in this skill was completed through Dada pockets, my hand began to enter Baba’s pockets as well. Now not only my hands, but my heart too trembled. Even though the pickings were never more than five or ten taka, I had to hang my head in shame. I got no peace. Later, this skill oppressed Yasmin as well. Dada’s anger at Chhotda increased day by day. Before leaving home, Dada had now begun to lock his medicine chest inside his cupboard. But it was not possible to lock one’s room all the time. If Dada was at home the door was always open. At such times, as soon as Dada was out of his room, Chhotda would send us to get medicines out of his chest. Since it might be dangerous to bring the medicine out in our hands, we were ordered to pass them from under the door. The green wooden doors in Dada and Chhotda’s rooms had gaps enough to pass through capsules and tablets, if not bottles. Chhotda’s single-minded Bahini ,workforce constituted of Yasmin and me, showed exemplary courage in regularly conducting these operations. One day Dada came to know. He closed the gap in the door with a plank bought to size from the woodshop. Not that there was any ebbing in the medicine flow even after this. We became used to not only smuggling out capsules and tablets, but even medicine bottles under our loose clothes.
In gentleman’s language, it could be called the war of the ‘Haves’ against the ‘Have-nots.’ In spite of all these, Dada was unable to build up a snake and mongoose relationship with Chhotda. This was because of his ‘bone-cracking’ malady. This malady conferred amazing pleasure on Dada. The sound produced by bones grazing against each other created sweet musical tremors in his ears. Dada cracked every bone he had in his body everyday. He produced sounds from every bone in his fingers by pulling the joints in all directions possible. He did the same with all the toes. He then needed to crack all the bones in his spinal column. With one hand on one chin and the other on his head, he would jerk the head first to the right, then to the left, and crack the bones in his neck. Dada could do this himself, but with Chhotda’s help the job was done even better. The minute he found Chhotda close by, he would lie upside down on the bed or floor. He would then extremely solicitously keep calling out to Chhotda. “Come on Kamaal, give me a pull, please.” It seemed that if asked to touch Chhotda’s feet, he would be willing to do even that. Chhotda would hold the flesh above Dada’s spine tightly, and jerk it upwards. Crack! Beginning from the nape of his neck, he would crack every vertebrae right down till the buttocks. Once he’d finished cracking the vertebrae on Dada’s spine, Chhotda would lie down in a similar fashion. Then Dada would do him the same favour.
With the object of remaining faithful to his plan of boycotting Chhotda, Dada one day called me to crack his back bones. I did not have the same magic in my hands. Even using every ounce of strength in me to pull Dada’s flesh upwards, I failed to move even a single bone. “Go girl, you can’t do it; call Kamaal.” Perforce, Chhotda came to administer medicines for Dada’s malady. Not just on his own, Dada pounced on other people’s bones as well. He could never figure out how people could survive without having their bones cracked. Once after cracking the little fingers and toes of my hands and feet with excruciating pain, Dada had caught hold of my neck in order to crack those bones. When he jerked my neck to the right, I screamed with pain and ran away from him. He ran behind me saying that the pain would increase if he did not crack the other side as well. I certainly did not allow Dada to touch the other side. Apart from this bone-cracking malady, Dada suffered from another ailment, called flatulence, ‘passing wind through the anus.’ This was so frightful that instead of providing food for other people’s laughter, it developed into a cause for irritation. Ma said “Noman’s stomach condition has not improved even today. Since his birth, he has suffered from stomach upsets.” To gauge whether it was judicious to enter Dada’s room or not, I had to extend my nose first instead of my feet. His flatulence caused no end of trouble. Just when an adda would be getting interesting, thanks to the terrible odour, except for Dada everyone else had to come away covering their noses and mouths. Dada would be reading from Rabindranath’s Golpoguchcho to which I would be intently listening. Just then, thanks to the same reason, I would have to leave, while Dada was left alone with the book in his hand. If anyone beat even Dada in this, it was Borodada. Once on observing Dada’s flatulence, he had challenged him. “Let’s compete.” If Dada blew down the room, Borodada blew down the house. The sounds and smells had thrown all of us as far as possible. At one point, because of scarcity of gas in his stomach, Dada was unable to create any sounds in spite of his best efforts. Borodada happily crowned himself King of Sounds. Dada became so desperate to win the challenge that he began to contract his whole body, in a superhuman effort to produce at least one sound, however soft. Borodada warned him, “Don’t strain too much, you will defecate.” Definitely something unbecoming must have occurred that day, otherwise why had Dada retreated from the battlefield and run towards the bathroom!
If one overlooked Dada’s reprehensible habits, he was not a bad human being, or so I thought. Sometimes things would suddenly fall through the cracks in his miserliness. In Baba’s stinginess there were no chinks, no chance of anything ever falling through. This time, Dada bought Yasmin and me satin cloth and not landir maal to make our Id dresses. When Ma was making them for us, Dada had only one request. “Please make them in the same design Sheila had made earlier.” Ma did exactly that. Like Sheila, Ma too made the same scalloped design at the neckline. Dada was not satisfied. He thought Sheila’s were better made. Clicking his tongue, Dada said, “It’s okay. But not exactly like Sheila’s.” Since some of the satin cloth had remained unused, I took Dada with me and gave Chandana the rest of it, to make a dress for herself. On returning from Chandana’s house, Dada said “Don’t you have any normal friends apart from these Garo, Chakma, Mog, Murang and Hajong people?
“What do you mean by normal? Is Chandana abnormal?”
“Of course she is abnormal”.
“There is no one as normal as Chandana”.
“Chandana is not bad. If only she had had a sharp nose I could have married her. But...”
“She’s a Chakma, a low caste Buddhist!”
“So what if she’s a Chakma?”
“No way! Am I going to finally marry a Chakma? What will people say?”
“What people will say comes later, how did you presume that just because you want to, Chandana would marry you?”
Dada laughed uproariously, as though I was cracking a joke.
“In her whole life, will she ever get some one as eligible as me?”
“Yes, Chandana has better things to do than to marry you!”
After remaining silent for a long time, Dada said, “Your friend Dilruba was beautiful. Pretty girls don’t remain available for very long. They get married while they are still in school. Those girls who are studying IA, BA, MA, are the ugly unmarried ones.”
If he was in a
good mood, Dada bought presents for Yasmin and me, even apart from
Ma said, “Noman, why do you sniff at these?” We too reproached him about it. Sometimes he even asked us to sniff at his dirt balls. Once when I asked for digestive tablets, he very seriously handed out three globules for me to swallow. They looked like pills, and I was about to take them, when Yasmin came running in a frenzy, and said, “Those are Dada’s filth.” I had to run to the bathroom to vomit.
Dada was in service. He was paid a handsome salary at the end of the month. He attended company meetings well-dressed in suits and boots. He had even received awards as the company’s best representative. Unfortunately, however high Dada rose in his career, his bad habits remained unchanged. A small man with big, big airs. Our small wishes, if not immediately, were fulfilled by him at some time. Almost every evening when from the terrace, I saw a boy dressed in a white shirt and brown trousers and felt attracted, I thought why can’t I wear the same kind of clothes! Baba had never been forthcoming in fulfilling our desires, Dada was the only one. I got Dada to buy me white Tetron cloth and even brown cloth to make the trousers. Hearing my wish, Dada said, “Not a pant, but you can make a pair of pyjamas with this cloth.” When Dada went with me to the tailor at the corner of Ganginar Par, I said “pant”, Dada said “pyjamas.”
“Do girls wear pants? Pants are for boys.”
“What is the problem if girls wear them?”
“There is a problem. People will stare.”
“Why should they? Is there something wrong in this?”
“Yes, there is.”
Eventually, Dada felt sorry to disappoint me, and asked the tailor, “Can something like a pant be made for her?”
The tailor laughed and said, “A lady’s pant can be made.”
“How is a lady’s pant made?”
There would be no pocket, no open fly at the centre, the slit would be on the left side with a zip, no cloth hooks around the waist for a belt - this was a lady’s pant. Well, something is better than nothing, so I had accepted eagerly. Since it was impossible to order a shirt for me, I had to settle for a dress. However, I made a tiny request. Could my dress sleeves be turned up like a shirt, on the outer side and not on the inner side? The tailor took my measurements with a long measuring tape. While doing so his hands repeatedly touched my breasts. Embarrassment made me stiff. But I told myself that it was impossible to take measurements otherwise. The day the ‘lady’s pant’ and the dress were ready, I was not just delighted, I was absolutely over the moon with joy. But as soon as I wore it, there was chaos. Baba saw me and couldn’t believe his own eyes. Angrily he asked, “What is this you are wearing?”
I said, “Pants.”
“Why are you wearing pants?”
I did not reply.
“Why are you wearing these obscene clothes? Don’t you have any shame? Take them off immediately. If I see you wearing these clothes ever again, I will flog you till there is no flesh left on your body.”
I had to shed my pants and wear pyjamas. It is not that I didn’t wear those pants ever again. I did, only of course, when I knew Baba was not within a mile’s distance.
Dada’s presents now began to cross the limit of clothes and jewellery and progressed to paint. Not paint for colouring pictures, but paint to make up our faces. He bought a makeup kit for me. I had not asked for it; he had bought it of his own wish. I had no experience of using a makeup box. No idea of what to use and how. Then Chhotda came to my rescue. He made me sit on a chair like a statue and coloured my face, eyes, eyelashes, cheeks, chin and lips. He dressed up Yasmin as well. I began to think of it as a magic box. How wonderfully it transformed my appearance. I began to look like the film stars, Kabari, Babita and Shabana. When Chandana came home, she too was made to sit and was made up. When Chhotda was applying pink powder from the box on to Chandana’s cheeks, Ma said, “Chandana is fair, does she need any powder?”
Dada did not just give Yasmin and me presents, he gave presents to Ma, too. Ma hid her tears in her soiled saris so that no one could see them. Even if they could be seen, we had got so used to them that we were never shocked. In fact we would possibly notice more if she were to wear a new sari. If she wore a pretty sari there would be a storm of questions and comments. “Bah! What a lovely sari! Where did you get it from? Who gave it to you?” Some times however, we did take notice even though our eyes were so used to her blouse-less, petticoat-less saris and the fact that tears were not such a great disaster for her. In case we suggested, “Ask Dada for a sari,” Ma would reply, “How much more is Noman to give? He’s already giving you all. The man, who’s actually supposed to give, is living comfortably. He has forgotten his responsibilities. He doesn’t ever think of buying anything for anyone.” Ma obviously wanted that Baba should give her something, not Dada. Ma waited like the Chatak bird waits for the first drops of rain. She waited hopefully for Baba to think of her, to do something for her, however small, however insignificant. Baba never noticed anyone’s hopes or desires, especially not Ma’s. It appeared that now Baba was not keen to give us even our rationed Id clothes. That we were getting them from Dada, he of course knew. Not only would he not give us anything, he even called Dada and rebuked him. He reminded him not to indulge us too much, because if he over indulged us, we would go to the dogs.
I don’t think Dada really remembered this advice. The very next day after Baba’s scolding he came to me and said, “Hey, want to go for a picnic?” Since I was always waiting for an opportunity to leave the house, I jumped at the offer. My afternoon and night sleep just evaporated with this proposal.
This picnic was
not to be in the
Jhunu khala had
passed out of
Another came in front, giggled and said, “Yes, they have.”
“How do you know? Have you touched them?
The gang of boys burst into loud laughter.
“Is she willing?”
“How much does she want?”
“She doesn’t say?”
“Why doesn’t she? Is she dumb?”
All the limbs of
my body were shaking. My throat was drying up. What if they were now to hit me
on my breasts, just as a boy had done once before on these very shores of the
“Hey, what’s your name? Where do you live?”
“Hey, girl, do you have a father?”
I didn’t answer
any of the questions. One of the lungi-clad boys threw a stone at me. It came
and hit my back. Another boy came close to me and poked my feet with his.
From the back, another one poked me. As though I was some strange creature who
had fallen out of the skies, all of them were poking me to see how I would
react. Not responding to either the stone or the pokes, I turned to the lapping
waters of the
The boys began to giggle and smirk.
“She’s finally spoken. She can speak then, she can speak…”
One of them lifted his lungi and started to dance before me. On seeing him another joined in the dance. The rest were laughing and clapping their hands. One of them came at me with his two claw paws directed at my breasts. I pushed away those paws with both my hands. The paws advanced again. I kept whimpering, then groaning. My dress was being pulled by two boys. They were widening their eyes, displaying their teeth, showing their tongues. They were playing with me. Having fun. All they needed was to pull my dress off. Why only the dress, why not even the pyjamas! In this deserted park, no one would see what was happening on this side. Suddenly I saw two people entering the park, and some life came back to my limbs. The two men wearing shirts and trousers were coming towards this crowd. The two gentlemen were coming. Seeing them the boys moved back. The lifted lungi dance also stopped. In the hope of being rescued from this atrocious scene, I moved towards the men. But one of the two men asked the boys, not me, “What’s happened?”
“This girl is sitting alone in the park.”
The other man asked with a serious face, “What is she doing alone?”
“That’s what we are asking. She doesn’t say.”
“Why doesn’t she?”
The two men stood
in front of me. They did not look at my face, but at my breasts. They laughed
coarsely. My sixth sense told me they were not my saviours. My sixth sense told
me, run. I couldn’t make out in which direction to run. This dilemma was
causing someone to come at me with hands and teeth out, and another to let fly
a raucous laugh. The laugh was causing the river to tremble. I began to feel
they were going to tear me apart. Eat me up. Bite me. Chew me. The dusk
was falling. The egg-yolk-like sun was sinking in the
I didn’t say anything. White Shirt walked ahead talking. I followed panting and silent.
“Why were you running? Did those boys do something to you?”
“Did they say something to you?”
Again, no reply.
I was too ashamed to tell him what the boys had done and said. As though the blame for all their exploits was mine, and so was the shame. The boys had done wrong, but it was as though it was my fault that they had.
Reaching close to
I shook my head from side to side.
“Then where will you go?”
My head shook again. A ‘nowhere’ or ‘I don’t know’ kind of reply.
Following White Shirt I happily went to their house, not exactly their house, their land lord’s house, not even the house really but its terrace. Sitting on the terrace and enjoying the breeze was White Shirt’s elder brother and his friend. As soon we reached the terrace, the brother and friend quickly went down.
“What will you eat?”
I shook my head, I didn’t want anything.
Except for nodding my head, I was unable to utter even one word in answer to White Shirt’s questions. White Shirt called out to his younger brother from the terrace, threw down some money and ordered him to get ‘One Seven-Up.’ The younger brother ran to get the Seven-Up, while White Shirt in the darkness of the terrace tried to put both his arms around me like Razzaq embraced Kabari in the movie. Such an invitation should have excited my desire to melt into the embrace as well. But I noticed that my body remained as stiff as wood. The wood leapt away and stood. The Seven-Up came, stood by itself, I was unable to touch it. When I had watched White Shirt from the terrace of Aubokash, walking from Golpukur Par to the corner of Sherpukur Par and disappearing, I had thought I’d fallen in love with him. It wasn’t as if my heart had not beaten excitedly. But this matter of rushing like Razzaq to embrace me, appeared so artificial to me, that deep down in my bones I understood that just by wanting to be Kabari, I couldn’t be, by wanting to be Babita, I couldn’t be. Life was not entirely like the novels and the movies. If that was so, then I would have enjoyed that embrace. Or I would have, with great strength, been able to uproot the teeth of that gang of boys and those two pant-shirt clad, uncouth men. I could not.
I had walked out
in the afternoon. Now it was dark. I did not have the power to imagine what
punishment awaited me at home. In that house, White Shirt said, “Let me take
you home.” As I had nowhere to go, I came down from the terrace and started
If I stood on the terrace, a boy younger than me standing on the verandah of his house would lift his lungi and show his penis. I had to turn my eyes away. I had to move away from the terrace railings. These eyes wanted to see something else, something beautiful and elegant. These evenings on the terrace, out of the damp rooms, enjoying the fresh air, watching the world on my own, were very happy times for me. For me the wide world was confined to only that much. All my freedom was here. When the cool and calm evening breeze began to bid farewell to the burning heat of the afternoon, it was the time to stand on the terrace and imbibe the refreshing air, in one’s body. Not just in the body, I imbibed it in my soul as well. But, now, realizing that I was not safe even on the terrace, caused me gradually to shrink. Was I at fault for making that good boy lift his lungi? I searched desperately for my faults. My own existence kept mocking me. I myself felt ashamed of myself, to myself. I was very embarrassed when a marriage proposal came from the house opposite our black gate. Next to Swapan’s house was a Mussalman house, where an ugly lungi-vest clad boy would stand. He sent his proposal to our house through the hands of Abdul Bari’s wife, who belonged to Jaglupara. The Mritunjay School Master, Abdul Bari’s balloon faced, freckle cheeked wife came home once in a while. She would chat about routine household and cooking matters and go away. On hearing of the marriage proposal from her mouth I trembled with fear and burnt with anger. Ma of course did not say anything insulting to her. With a disapproving face and gloomy expression she said, “The girl’s father wants to educate her further. He will get very angry if he hears of a marriage proposal now.” Even after hearing Ma’s answer, Abdul Bari’s wife called me aside secretly. Taking a crumpled letter out of her blouse, she pulled out my hand and tucked the letter in it, before leaving in a confused hurry. I opened and read the letter in the bathroom. There were two pages crammed with ‘I love you’ type of words. For the first time, I tore a letter written to me into bits, and threw it into the filth in the toilet. After throwing it, without informing any one of the letter, I sat alone, hidden from every one.
On seeing my growing body Baba collected an odhna from Ma, and hung it over my shoulders, telling me, “Wear it this way, you will look nice”. Baba’s words were so intensely insulting that they tied me up in knots. My shame over my developing breasts was so acute that I buried my head in my pillow and cried all night. I felt ashamed to wear this extra cloth to cover my breast. To me, this was the proof that something was hidden behind it, something soft, something modest, something one couldn’t talk about. That was why it had to be covered, because what was there, was very obscene, something growing uncontrollably, and definitely not to be seen. So that I wouldn’t have to wear an odhna, and no obscene part of my body was visible, I walked with my back hunched up. It became a habit. Ma boxed me on my back saying, “Walk straight, wear your odhna. If you wear it, you can walk straight. If you hunch your back from now on, later your backbone will never straighten up.” Even then I didn’t feel like straightening up and covering myself with an odhna. I found the article increasingly awkward. Whether I wore it or not, people knew I had grown up. By the time girls had taken their SSC, Ma said they were not only married, they sometimes even had children. Hearing this, a sharp thorn pierced my breast. My breast trembled. I did not want to grow up. Marriage appeared to me not only something fearful and troublesome, but also obscene. Maybe it happened to others, but may it never happen to me. I threw away the odhna Baba had covered me with. I had grown up, yet I was afraid to make people understand this fact.
After my exams, I
had dreamt of getting a break from my school books. When I returned from the
The day the SSC results were declared, Rabindranath Das came rushing to Aubokash and enthusiastically sounded the victory bugle. I had passed in the First Division. On getting the news, when I was jumping all over the house with joy, Baba arrived with the exam results in his hand. I was quite sure he was going to call for me and hug me saying, “Ma-Ma”. He would bring baskets of rasgolla, malaikari, kalojaam, chum-chum and feed every one at home. When he called me, I went before him with my face brimming over with happiness. Just when I was physically ready to feel Baba’s embrace, and mentally prepared to accept his elation, slapping me hard on my cheeks, he said “You have got a Third Division. Aren’t you ashamed ?”
“Third Division?” My stupefied face corrected Baba, “But I have got a First Division.”
continuous blows on my head and face, Baba said “Have you got a Star? No, you
haven’t. How many Letters have you got? A First Division without a Letter means
you have just about made it, and that means getting a Third Division.” From the
Adarsha Balika Vidyayatan, only three girls had passed in the First Division.
No one was Star-spangled or had secured Letters. So what? “Girls from
Vidyamoyee had, from the
Late at night when everyone was asleep, I walked stealthily around the house looking for rat-poison. My developing body coupled with my strange existence and my useless brain – everything made me feel so small, that I wanted to become smaller and smaller, so tiny in fact that I would not even be visible. I could not find the rat-poison. What I did find was a dusty rat-trap in one corner of the room.
MY VERY OWN LITTLE BIRD NAMED CHANDANA
Every year I was given a scholarship at the Residential, right from the seventh grade onwards. But I was not allowed to keep a single taka of it for myself. Baba counted every penny and took it all. Ma said, “Your Baba is keeping it aside for your future. He will give it back to you when you grow up.” I believed what Ma said. In a way I felt content that all the money with Baba was actually mine. I dreamt of being able to buy books enough to fill a whole room when I grew up. Yasmin, after failing twice in the fifth grade, had actually done something surprising. Baba had made her take the School Board scholarship exam, and she not only did well, she even got the scholarship. Now if Baba wanted to call for Yasmin, he would say, “Where, where is that scholarship winning student!” I had not been able to take the fifth grade scholarship exam, and though I had taken the eighth grade one, I was not fated to be successful. It was because of my failure that Baba made it a point to call Yasmin “scholarship winning student” in my presence. Not just that, Baba compared me very often to the worms found in dirty sewers. Repeatedly called a worm, I soon began to think of myself as one. When I did not get a star-spangled First Class, I again began to think of myself as a dirty worm. Chandana had passed in the Second Class. She was not at all worried about this. Most of the students had done the same. I was, however, very sure that if I, too, had secured a Second Class, Baba would have whipped me till I was covered in blood and thrown me out of the house. I was saved because that disaster had not taken place. Having secured a First Class, I would get a scholarship in college and I would study for free. Baba was very fond of scholarships. If he was pleased, I would at least be free of some of the pressure of having to perform. If even this had not happened, I would have had to face Baba’s snarls at every juncture. Not that I was not facing them now. Anyway, I was positive the frequency would have been much more had I not got the scholarship.
There was no need to take entrance exams for admission. The college admitted me on the basis of my SSC results. I regretted having wasted so much precious time studying my old school books even after my exam. My time had flown by, literally gone with the wind. Would such a leisurely time ever come back! Maybe, there would be other times, but the vacation after one’s SSC exam would never return.
I had wanted to
Chandana hated the odhna as much as I did. Very often we appeared in college without wearing it. On seeing the wide-eyed shock of students and teachers, we realised that by removing this absolutely mandatory piece of clothing, we had upset them all. However, none of us were of the kind to be affected by the feelings of others. Once college started, from the knowledge we gathered about our teachers, we realised that the one class we could not afford to miss was that of our Maths teacher Debnath Chakraborty even if the world were to turn upside down. The rest, we could miss unless there was something really important. The Bangla teacher Abdul Hakim mispronounced most of the words. In his class we could exchange little notes, draw Hakim’s picture, round haircut, glasses hanging from his nose. There was no reason to be interested in the poems in the textbooks as our minds were already infused with poetry. Srimati Sumita Naha also taught Bangla. When she explained the poetry and prose, except for those sitting in the first row, it was impossible for anyone else to hear her voice. She seemed to keep her voice close to the ground as if she wanted to protect it. Perhaps she feared that if she raised her voice too high, it might just crash and fall on the ground! She was a well known Rabindrasangeet exponent. Her husband Alokmoy Naha was also an artist. An artist and a politician. He stood for elections and won. He was a good politician, but that was not the reason he won. He won because he was a good singer. The Chemistry teacher’s nose was always wrinkled up, as though every possible thing in this world was stinking. She taught us in a nasal tone. Whether or not her students understood what she was saying, she continued to teach. As soon as the bell rang, she would leave immediately, her nose still crinkled up. One day Chandana and I were suddenly sent out of her class as punishment for being unable to suppress our laughter. We were, of course, thrilled at this opportunity to leave the class. Chandana and I tried to gauge in which girls’ hearts a warm breeze blew whenever our Physics teacher entered the class with his crooked smile. The Biology class created some waves. One had to catch frogs and lay them on their backs in trays of wax. Their chests and stomachs had to be cut open to show their digestive systems. On thick white paper we had to draw pictures of various creatures. Drawing meant it was my day to reign as Queen. The whole day I would elaborately sketch pictures with HB, B, 3B and other types of pencils, as though I had joined an art school. Seeing this Baba would say, “Leave all this worthless exercise and learn your texts by heart.” To Baba, drawing pictures in Biology was also worthless. A frog had to be taken to college, so a race after a frog would begin all round the courtyard. The frog ran and we ran after it. Yasmin, Ma and I. Finally, I carried a golden frog in a paper packet to college. The frog which had been ambushed while sitting in the corner of a room had its limbs ultimately stretched out and pinned down by me. I even cut it open to expose its digestive system, but my pity for the frog made me so sad that until Chandana came and shook me, I did not feel normal. Once I did, I left the room. The less time spent within the suffocating environment of the classrooms the better for us. I left the biology laboratory. We wanted to spread our wings. Within us was born a strong desire to break our bonds. However, as we were unable to cross the limits of the college boundary, we were forced to sit under a red cotton Simul tree in the extreme corner of the compound. In a futile attempt to quench our thirst for milk with whey, we read each other’s poetry. All the students in the college stared at us unblinkingly. It seemed we were “different”, not really normal. At that time Chandana was in the process of falling in love with a boy she saw on her way to college. Hearing her story of ‘falling, falling’, I too felt like creating some waves in the dull routine of my life. But there was no one close at hand to create a ripple. I had no ‘falling, falling’ story. My life was only full of the empty silences of the afternoon and the hot dusty winds of the summer. I felt like a destitute. One day I got Yasmin to secretly give White Shirt a note asking him to meet me near the college gate at ten. He was the same White Shirt who made my heart beat faster when I used to see him from the terrace. The next day, instead of entering college I picked up the waiting White Shirt and went straight to Muktagaccha. This method of taking a rickshaw on a long trip to Muktagaccha was something I had learnt from Chhotda. He used to do the same with Geeta. However, all the way I only looked at the villages, the farmers ploughing the land and the emaciated cows sitting on the edges of the road. At the famous Gopal Sweet Shop, I bought two of their popular mondas, and rode back to the college gate on the same rickshaw. On the way White Shirt had asked some casual questions which I had been able to answer only in the negative or positive, nothing more. There was no doubt that I got a great thrill out of engineering this episode, and was considered very daring when I described the whole incident to Chandana in detail. But I noticed that for White Shirt I did not feel anything. I did not even want to run away with him again somewhere and enjoy the weather.
In the meantime something awful happened. Baba had engaged Debnath Chakraborty to teach me at home. Students thronged to his house to study, and a Pandit like Debnath Chakraborty had actually agreed to come home and tutor me. This was no ordinary matter; it was an extraordinary privilege! However, I noticed a big danger in this arrangement. In the classroom he had to see my pretty face, not just see, but every question he had to ask was directed at me, and he expected the correct answers from no one else but me. Naturally I was unable to do so. Therefore, in every class he showered slaps, boxes, the duster and everything else at my head. When he appeared at Aubokash in the evening, my body turned numb. With a figure like a round potato, wearing the perennial blue shirt and black pants, carrying a fat black pen in his shirt pocket, black rubber shoes on his feet, hair parted and combed, a mouth full of paan, a swaying gait, the man could have been any Kalimuddin-Salimuddin walking along the road. But no, he was Debnath Chakraborty with a big head full of complicated scientific knowledge. Without his tutoring it was not possible for any student to do well in the exams. Thanks to Debnath Pandit, every evening of mine was ruined. If I made any mistake in Maths or in the laws of Physics, he would immediately tear my books and copies and throw them on the ground. Yasmin hovered close by to pick these up and put them back on the table. With my head the target, a continuous stream of powerful beatings, boxes and slaps rained down on it. People at home watched my pitiful condition from behind the drapes. One day, Ma stricken with compassion, sent a branch broken from the jackfruit tree with Yasmin, so that it could be used on my back. She was keen that the beatings fall on my back alone, not on my head. “The way he beats her on the head, one day she won’t have one at all!” Ma was really worried regarding my head. When Debnath Pandit’s temper rose, however, he rarely noticed the branch of the jackfruit tree. The branch stayed where it was, and as before his beatings again rained down continuously on my head, and he resumed tearing my books and throwing them down. Not just my evening, Debnath Pandit managed to make my whole life utterly miserable.
In this unbearable existence, there was no dearth of other tensions. When the magazine Bichitra started a section called ‘Personal Announcements’, Chandana and I decided we would write for it. For one word the charges were eight annas, for four, two takas. It was not possible for me to manage more than two or three takas. Saving my rickshaw fare for college, on the way back home, we stopped at the Post Office and wrote our notices on money order forms and sent them. We had finally got a formidable opportunity to write what we pleased, beyond the usual movie talk in cine magazines, and the hackneyed monotony of nation-times-society discussions in Bichitra. We were two individuals extremely impatient to do as we pleased. Seeing Poet Rafiq Azad’s personal notice “One poem for one kiss”, our enthusiasm began leaping like a kangaroo. Chandana and I together wrote, “We are one soul, one life.” I wrote, “I am an unmanageable turbulence.” Chandana wrote, “I am the greatest.” Just like the reaction in Chitrali, if I wrote one, twenty others wrote about me, some for and some against. Hardly two or three words used to create a statement, like throwing a stone into a still pond, and creating ripples. Sitting on the edges, Chandana and I both enjoyed the experience of watching the waves. Ours was a sheltered existence. We had barriers and wire meshes all around us. There were prohibitions at every step, denials at every stage. We acquired the strength and courage to disobey these restrictions through words. Our words were pronounced with such pride and arrogance that anybody who read them assumed we were two haughty, immodest, headstrong, disdainful, fierce young women who did not accept restrictions and cared two hoots for customs, rules and regulations. Whereas, the reality was the absolute opposite; this unrestricted free life was only the life of our dreams. Many even thought, we were the two names behind which a man was hiding, that Taslima and Chandana were not two different individuals at all. Like ants in winter, whatever money we gathered and saved in two and four annas from one rickshaw fare, from our glassbottlepaperwala, from the pockets of our fathers and brothers with or without their knowledge was perpetually swallowed up in the fast-flowing stream of our personal announcements.
Chandana and I had never spoken in pure Bangla; we had always used the Mymensingh rural dialect. Chandana was much more of an expert at this than I was. Initially I used to laugh at Chandana but gradually I fell into the trap of this language myself. Between us, the competition was about who could use the maximum number of regional terms. I lost to Chandana repeatedly. People going through schools and colleges tried to overcome their provincialism as much as possible. Chandana had come from the hilly regions of Rangamati in Chattagram. At home she spoke the Chakma dialect. However, outside her home very few people knew the level of pure Bangla that she used, just as even people born and brought up here could not match her mastery of the tone and rhythm of the local dialect. Chandana enthralled me no doubt, but she surprised me as well. Whenever I spoke to Chandana it was in rural Mymensingh dialect, even letters were exchanged in the same language. I had always known that whatever language people used while speaking, they always wrote letters in pure Bangla. However, Chandana had never followed this norm. In whatever language she spoke to a person, she wrote letters to that person in the same language. Before coming to Chattagram, she lived in Comilla. She wrote to her friend there, in Comilla dialect. Before Comilla, she had been in Chattagram, she wrote to a friend there in the local dialect. After meeting me, she gave up all other friends and gave me her exclusive attention. In my life, too, apart from Chandana all other friends had begun to fade away. I had no hand in this. Chandana’s individuality, novelty, rarity overwhelmed me, at all times I felt awed by her. After SSC and before joining college our chances of meeting were very few for similar reasons. Just as I had to sit at home, Chandana had to sit at home, too. There was no question of visiting friends whenever we wished. Going out meant visiting Nanibari. I had given up visiting Peerbari ages ago, or going to functions with Chhotda with a reluctant consent from Ma, or watching movies with Dada. As far as movies were concerned I could only go to matinee shows, so that Baba did not get to know. As soon as the show would get over, Dada, Yasmin and I would hurry home and sit with faces which appeared as though we had never known what cinema was all about. I had taken Chandana sometimes with me to the movies, but even that was under Dada’s supervision. After seeing Alamgir Kabir’s film Seemana Periye (Beyond the Limits), the dialogues of Bulbul Ahmed were always on our lips. Enacting the part of a moronic stammering man on a remote island, Bulbul had told Jayshree, “Wha-what haven’t I done for you, I have he-held you-you close to my hea-heart, carried you on my ba-back…!” This dialogue of Bulbul, Chandana and I knew by heart. Chandana started it. She had a battle with her younger brother Saju once. Soon after being beaten up by him, a very aggrieved Chandana described the whole incident to me saying “Wha-what have I no-not done for him, I have he-held him clo-close to my hea-heart, my sto-stomach, my he-head, my shou-shoulders.” Chandana never bore a grudge against her brothers even when she was hurt by them in fights. But one hurt she bore all her life. When Molina Chakma had given birth to a girl child, Subroto Chakma had come into the labour room with a big chopper to kill his own daughter because he did not like girls. Thanks to the intervention of family members in the labour room, Chandana’s life was saved no doubt. Molina Chakma having subsequently given birth to two male offsprings, Subroto Chakma’s anger with Chandana had abated somewhat, but Chandana had never been able to forgive her father. Even now, like a nightmare the scene stubbornly remained day and night in her mind.
the news that Chipachosh was having a function. The one and only Bulbul
Ahmed was coming from
abandoning her casual love affairs with neighbourhood boys who threw notes or
wrote letters, became absorbed with Jaffar Iqbal. Jaffar Iqbal was the most
handsome hero in the world of films. Many things were written about the love affairs
of hero Jaffar Iqbal and heroine Babita in the film magazines. We never
bothered about such things. It was a question of good looks. There was such a
bankruptcy of handsome men about us, that we both knew we had no option but
Jaffar. One day, Chhotda went to
The shame of having lied devoured me. Putting the phone down, I went and hid my face under the quilt on my bed. Later, as soon as I met Chandana I sighed deeply and told her about the embarrassing incident. “I’ve ruined it. Trying to appear older in age, I went and told a lie.” Jaffar Iqbal knew that Chandana was my friend. If one was a liar, then the other could be one too! After sitting desolately for a long time; Chandana suddenly shook off her sorrow and said, “You spoke only the truth, don’t we study at the University? We do. In our minds.” When Baba removed the telephone from the drawer, and walked out of the house with it under his arms the very next day, I kind of heaved a sigh of relief. The torn phone cable kept hanging for a long time. Chhotda bought an old telephone, from where, only he knew. He tried connecting it to the torn cable and tested it only to get no sound. Meanwhile out of shame I did not reply to Jaffar’s letter. Chandana continued to receive letters from him. His letters had now gone beyond friendship and were hinting at love. So were Chandana’s. I was the listener for both sides. This role suited me. I also realised that I did not have the capacity to accept any other role.
Chhotda was again
organising a function for Chipachosh. Shahnaz Rahmutullah, the renowned
singer, and her brother, our one and only excellently beloved Jaffar Iqbal were
Chandana had squashed quite a few lovers meanwhile. She had abused their neighbour, Magistrate Akhtar Hossain as an “old bull”, had spat out in disgust on seeing Antu, the boy who sang, walking bare-chested on the terrace, and had rejected Sandipan Chakma, the paying guest in their house for a few months, on seeing him eat. Chandana could not bear to see bare-chested men or those chewing food. Romance disappeared in fright from her mind. She had even said on and off, “Do you know when it is that people always look awful?” “When?” “When they eat. There is an orifice called mouth in our body, people stuff all kinds of things into it, rubbing their two sets of teeth on them in the most obscene manner … Chhi! The one I love should not eat in front of me, not undress before me or go to the toilet in my presence. Bas, that’s the simple equation.” During the vacation, Chandana once went to visit Rangamati. The Raja of the Chakmas, Debashish Ray was then looking for a bride. At a family function he was amazed to see Chandana. Where would he ever get such an eligible bride! Where else in Rangamati was there anyone as beautiful and intelligent as her! He wanted Chandana. Wanted means wanted. Debashish Ray was a friend of one of Chandana’s paternal cousins. Through him, Debashish sought an opportunity to meet and speak to Chandana. Subroto Chakma was over the moon with joy. His daughter was about to become a Rani. At her cousin’s request Chandana went to meet Debashish at the banks of a big pond. In its clear water, flocks of white swan were swimming with their smooth necks held high. Sitting on the grass nearby, when Debashish like a lover had extended his sweaty hands towards her and had just begun to speak words of love in a serious voice, Chandana had burst into laughter. Returning home she told her enthusiastic cousin that Debashish may be a Raja and what not, but he certainly did not know how to make love. Marriage would not work out with him. Subroto Chakma, initially in a soft tone, then in a strong voice told Chandana to accept Debashish’s marriage proposal. She did not agree. Beatings did not work either. Chandana was totally against marriage. She could not even imagine a bare-bodied man sharing a bed with her. Then he would do things, make her do things, which even if other girls were agreeable to, Chandana certainly wasn’t. Merrily rejecting the royal proposal, Chandana came back to Mymensingh when the vacations finished. She anyway disliked any blunt nosed Chakma man, however great a Raja he might be. Chandana’s ability to quickly fall in love like this and as quickly reject the lovers was very fascinating to me. I had no one to reject, and I did not fall in love with anyone either.
request Chandana wrote a letter to his childhood friend. Gradually Hassan
Mansoor Khokon grew to be Chandana’s number one pen friend. As the name Khokon
was associated with being a mama’s boy, Chandana rejected it, and chose to
address him as Hassan. She regularly listened to the song “Na Sajni, I know she
will not come”, and added the name Sajni, meaning ladylove, at the end of her
name. She did not like the name Chandana, and certainly did not care for the
title Chakma at all. However, as they were her own names she could not drop
them. Even if anyone was called witch, she had to retain the name as her own.
Chandana read Hassan’s marvelous letters, and after writing Sajni Hassan on
paper, moved around to see how good it looked. Jaffar Iqbal had been handsome
no doubt, but his letters were full of wrong spellings and faulty language.
This could be forgiven a couple of times, not everyday. Chandana got involved with
Hassan. Just as Hassan wrote poems about forests and seas, about getting lost
one day on some unknown island, Chandana too wrote of her perfectly beautiful
dreams that were like feathers floating sorrowfully in the colourful sky. What
Chandana wrote to Hassan, or even what Hassan wrote to Chandana was all read
out to me. There was not even a single little thing that was secret between
Chandana and me. I couldn’t believe that Chandana was really keen to meet, in
reality, any of the people she wrote to. She liked to play with words and
dreams; she played. I told Chandana that my heart fluttered when I saw Hassan’s
crooked smile. I even told her that Hassan was very handsome. In fact in my
childhood I had thought that there was no one in the world more handsome than
Hassan. Chandana listened very carefully to what I was saying, and while doing
so she mentally began walking in some faraway forest holding Hassan’s hand. The
same Hassan, almost half-mad with reading Chandana’s letters, one day arrived
in Mymensingh from
“I had already told you how handsome Hassan was, did you see!”
Chandana laughed loudly.
“Come on. Tell me quickly.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Tell me how you liked Hassan.”
“Dhoor, he was rotten! The fellow had a paunch.”
Hassan was rejected. I too looked closely at Hassan, the fellow really had a paunch. Chandana opened my eyes for me, opened my mind for me. I clearly understood that Chandana and I both liked everyone, and yet didn’t like them. We wanted to fall in love, and yet didn’t want to. We knew all about love, we had read about it, seen it, but somehow its existence in our own lives was acceptable, yet not really so. We swung between liking and not liking, Chandana and I.
Even though we
bunked class, we had not been able to hoodwink Gagan, the guard. So we
discovered a thorny bush at the end of the college grounds and one day, even
though we got badly scratched, we escaped from under it into the streets. We
had got out but where could we go? The afternoon was in a daze, deserted and
burning in the rays of the sun. Chandana suggested going to the park. My heart
trembled at the thought of the park. Suppose I was confronted again by those
gangs of boys! Chandana caught my hand and pulled me ahead. Her touch was
enough to make me more restless, lively and activated. Floating for the moment
on the wings of Chandana’s daring, I temporarily forgot the gangs of boys and
went to that same
In the college premises, Chandana and I gradually became isolated in our different world. Not that we didn’t want to meddle sometimes in the gossip of other girls. Once there was no class. Sitting in the midst of a group of gossiping girls, I heard about when which girl was getting married, which boy was coming to see which girl and when, the boy’s name, address, what he did etc. Both Chandana and I had smiles peeping out of the corners of our mouths. None of the girls liked our smiles. One of them wanted to know why we were grinning.
“We are laughing because you are talking about this disgusting subject.”
“Disgusting subject?” Some girls’ eyes had reached their foreheads; others near their noses, and some girl’s eyes had bulged out of their sockets. It was as though Chandana and I could not possibly be human; we must be some strange creatures from another planet.
Irritated, one of them asked, “Why should it be disgusting?”
“Of course, it is disgusting,” said Chandana.
“You are behaving as though you will never get married.”
“We never will. I can be married only if I want to!” I said.
Chandana said, “Phoo! Am I mad to get married! No one but mad and stupid people get married.”
“We will never get married.” On hearing this declaration of ours, the girls wanted to know what was the reasoning behind our decision.
“Is there any reason for getting married, if there is, then what is it?”
“To have a household. There is need for a family.”
“What is the need for domestic life? Do people not survive without it?”
“There will be children.”
“What happens if you don’t have them?”
“Who will feed you? Give you money?”
“I will complete my studies and work. I will earn money. I will stay alone. Eat and drink. Roam around. Enjoy myself. Do whatever I please.”
“Is that possible?”
“Why not? Of course, it is. You only have to wish to do so.”
We moved away. We could make out that many eyes were staring unblinkingly at our backs. Taking my hand in hers, Chandana walking towards the Simul tree, said, “Don’t look back.” We walked along together like this, holding hands with our arms around each other’s waists and shoulders, without looking backwards. This was nothing new in the college grounds. Friends spent time talking to each other in this way. However, the girls said that the slight slant of our necks indicated an invisible pride and arrogance.
To Chandana and me, poetry became more important than romance. Everyday we wrote poems, or we wrote stories. Whatever I might write, in comparison to Chandana’s, mine appeared very ordinary. If she created a beautiful red flowering Krishnachura Gulmohar tree, mine appeared like a wilting, flowerless plant. I was so enchanted by her beauty, her aura, her essence and her extraordinary originality, that if ever a trace of jealousy was born in my mind, it disappeared in seconds. Chandana and I could never become Chipachosh members; we could never even go to any societies or meetings; we were not for such things. Ours was a different world. We were involved in the endless, unworried, solitary and pure game of words. We did not take our words to demonstrations and shout slogans, nor did we know how to play the game of politics. During that period of poetic abundance, one day Chhotda brought home Shafiqul Islam. Shafiqul wore thick lenses. His head was bigger than his body, and it was covered with tough, wiry hair. He looked as though he had not taken a bath in two years, nor changed his clothes. This garrulous man was constantly talking in the regional tune and tone. As soon as he saw me he said, “What’s up, you have become very famous! I publish a little magazine. Write a poem, will you?” In one evening I complied with his request, and wrote a new poem called ‘Free Bird’. It went a bit in this way – “Open the window, I want to go, I want to fly all over the sky.” Maybe I was inspired by hearing Ma, who whenever she sat on the verandah would suddenly break into the song, “I am a free, flying goose, I spread my wings in the far away blue sky”. Two weeks later when Shafiqul’s poetry magazine came out, my poem was published in it. Padmarag Mani had also written a poem in it. Padmarag Mani came to visit Chhotda and Geeta at Aubokash once in a while. From a distance I had exchanged glances, subdued smiles and even a couple of words with this eye-catching beauty. Once my poem was published in Shafiqul’s magazine, other such poetry magazines began to float in. Rush in and even crawl towards me. Chhotda came home with numerous small magazines after meeting various poets in town. Frequently he demanded, “Write a poem for Banglaar Darpan.” I wrote, it got published. “Tell Chandu Mastaan to write a poem.” Chandana too kept giving Chhotda poems, and they too got published. Since the day Chandana had arrived at Aubokash early morning on a cycle, Chhotda had named her “Chandu Mastaan, the hell cat”. Chandana was not displeased. Chhotda was told by the Dainik Jahaan also, to get me as well as Chandana to write poetry for them. Entering the material world of poetry, those were my first uncertain steps. So were they Chandana’s. Our poetry notebooks were overflowing with words. Chitrali and Purbani began to fade away. We neither wrote for them nor bought them. We hardly remembered sending personal announcements to Bichitra. If the topic came up, Chandana would say, “There are dangers in advertisements. A printing error could change a 24 year old heroine into a 42 year old harlot.” So advertisements were out. If we had to send something, we would send poems, either to the Sunday or Searchlight’s literary page.
At the end of the first year at college, there was to be a promotion exam to the second year. Debnath Pandit came home to tutor, rained boxes and slaps on my head and back, to his heart’s content, and went away. Chandana did not have this Debnath Pandit problem. She was happy. Chandana had always been unconcerned about things like studies. I, too, would have been, but could not be, thanks to Baba. I was forced to study in the English medium because Baba wanted me to. Chhotda had studied in this medium and some of his books were lying around at home. I dusted them and arranged them on my table. Before the exams Debnath Babu informed Baba, “She should study in Bangla only, she would be unable to cope with the English medium.” Bangla books were brought and the English removed. I had to rush through the books, as the exams were round the corner. I didn’t know why, but just before the exams, Debnath Pandit would appear at all odd hours – his hair ruffled, the ink from the fountain pen in his pocket soaking almost half his shirt – and give me a few questions to write, saying, “Study these answers really well.” Bas, after learning these answers very well, when I went to take my exams I mostly found only these questions in my papers. The exams got over, the results were declared. I had come first. I became famous in college. The Principal called me to her room and said, “You are the pride of this college. Continue to work hard we want really good results in the final exams.” Baba was not really happy, though, on getting the news. He noticed that many letters addressed to me were coming home. He asked Dada, “Who are the people writing to Nasreen?”
“Penfriend means what?”
In a disinterested tone Dada replied, “Friendship through letters.”
“What does that mean?”
Dada did not reply.
“What do they write in these letters?” Baba was very astonished.
“Who knows, I have no idea.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“She doesn’t show me the letters.”
“Why doesn’t she? What is there in these letters?”
Dada was quiet.
“Whom does she write to?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t we need to know to whom this girl is writing, what she is writing, why she is writing?”
“There’s nothing much. It is just normal friendship!”
Dada tried to cool Baba’s growing temper, but it didn’t work. Baba’s voice grew steadily louder.
“What is the meaning of normal friendship?”
Dada stared dumbly at the white wall.
“Are they women or men? Whom is she writing to?”
“You mean she is making friends with men?”
Getting no reply from Dada, he huffed and puffed saying, “Does she want to get married?”
Dada said, “No, not marriage.”
“Just like that.”
“Meaning what? Just like what?”
“She just writes casually.”
“Why does she write casually? What is the need?”
“No, there is no need.”
“If there is no need, then why does she write?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you?”
Baba went on questioning Dada – his eyes red, swollen and ready to gobble Dada up. To escape from the torture of this questioning, Dada excused himself by saying he needed to go to the toilet, and went and sat there. Baba repeatedly took off his glasses, and wore them; kept walking from one end of the verandah to the other and rummaged amongst the books on my table. Every book, every copy. Under the table, every fallen piece of paper there. Even under the bedsheets, pillows and mattresses. He was looking for something.
incident all my letters stopped coming. They were now going to the Notun Bazar
address of Arogya Bitaan. Baba had wangled the postman into doing this.
I was sure of this the day Chhotda informed me that he found many letters
addressed to me at Aubokash, all opened, in Baba’s drawer at Arogya
Bitaan. As soon as Baba had left for the Bazaar, Chhotda had made this
discovery. There was only one thing that I had felt at that time, that this was
wrong. Baba, being Baba, did not think that there was anything wrong in this.
But why should the postman do this? That I would get no help from anyone if I
complained, I was sure. So I wrote a letter. In the Readers Page of Bichitra,
the letter was published the very next week. Letters for Aubokash,
Amlapara were being delivered at 69,
“Wherever they are delivered, he is your father after all.”
In a soft voice I corrected him, “Yes, he is my father. He is not me. My father and I are not the same, we are different.” The official went away. The problem remained unsolved. Chhotda helped me out of this situation by allowing me to use his friend’s stationery shop address. I informed my penfriends of my new address. Chhotda faithfully acted as my postman. I was very friendly with him. We read the Id Edition of Bichitra, stories, and novels together, that is, I read them aloud and Chhotda listened. Most of the story books were also read in this way. Some of these Chhotda did not like, and these I read by myself. The stories of the wicked forest elf of my childhood were forgotten. I had given up reading Niharranjan Gupta, Phalguni Mukhopadhyay, Nimai Bhattacharya, Bimal Mitra, Jarasondho ages ago. I had nothing left of Saratchandra to read. I had even had enough of Rabindranath and Nazrul. Michael, even Jibanananda had been consumed. From Shakti, Sunil, Shamshur Rahman, Al Mahmud to the recent Nirmalendu Goon’s books, whatever had been published, I had read. I wanted something different. On the way back home from college, I stopped at the bookshops at the corner of Ganginar Par, and searched for books. Prose, poetry, essays, all kinds of books attracted me. But I didn’t have enough money to buy books. Chhotda rescued me from even this misery. One evening he took me to the Public Library. As soon as I entered it, a wonderful peace and calm embraced me. From the floor to the ceiling of the room, were bookshelves. There were books all around. In the centre there were study tables; there was pin-drop silence; one or two people were studying seriously. Purposely, I spent the whole day in this clean, neat and peaceful temple-like room. If only all the books in the library could be carried home and read today itself! That very day I became a member and carried home as many books as I could hold in my two hands. The books kept passing from my hands to Chandana’s and back to mine. Once we’d gone through Sayyed Waliullah, Saikat Usman, Hassan Ajijul Haq, it was Satinath Bhaduri, Naren Mitra and Jagdish Gupta. We returned books and got more. We hungrily read all the books, as though very soon we had to take an important exam on the books in the Public Library.
The exams were approaching. In refined terms the Higher Secondary, in colloquial, Intermediate and in bookish Bangla ‘Uchcho Madhyamik’ exams. Instead of three days, now Debnath Pandit was coming home five days a week. He didn’t come to teach me actually, only to beat me into a worthy person. Like Baba’s, Debnath Pandit’s eyes strayed to the small bits of paper. One day a half-finished letter to a penfriend fell out of my Maths book. Before I could pick up the fallen letter, Debnath Pandit grabbed it, read it from top to bottom, and put it into his breast pocket. What was this! He was behaving just like Baba. Was he now going to break the firewood in the courtyard on my back, because of this letter! Every so often he felt his breast pocket, and seemed to feel a kind of joy in ascertaining that the half –finished letter still existed, and instead of flying away somewhere, was still inside his pocket. It was the kind of joy that inflamed one, that made the hair on one’s body stand on end, and settle down, that made the head throb and not do so at the same time. Debnath Pandit was unable to teach. He kept shifting from left to right, from back to front. His mind was restless. I finished the sums he had given me; there were no mistakes. Suddenly he clutched the Physics book with all his ten fingers as though the book had wings and would fly away if he loosened his hold. Turning the pages, he began to ask me the most difficult questions. I don’t know with whose blessings, but even these I was able to answer correctly. With Chemistry, too, my fate was the same. After that, he suddenly pushed away the Maths, Physics and Chemistry books with both hands and without any reason gave me one great blow on my head, on the right side of my forehead. Why! No, there was no reason for it. He said, “Why aren’t you doing the sums I gave you to solve yesterday!”
“I have done them.”
“If you have done them, then why can’t you show them? Where is your mind?”
This was the golden opportunity to punish me for the half-finished letter. I held the Maths copy before him. Even after doing so I got a sudden blow on my back. My lungs felt the impact.
“How many times do I have to tell you to leave a margin when doing sums?”
This was first time he had mentioned a margin. Whatever. Then he came to the actual topic.
“Who have you written the letter to?”
This time a slap landed smack on my cheek.
“As though you don’t know which letter? This one!”
He took out the half-finished letter from his breast pocket.
“Who is Jewel? Where does she stay? What does she do?”
“She stays in
“You don’t know? Are you fooling me?”
How could I fool Debnath Pandit? I didn’t have that kind of courage. Debnath Pandit sat before me with his huge body, massive physique, arms like the trunks of a banana tree, and fingers like hard, solid bananas. I tried, on the other hand, to lie at his feet like a dying blade of grass, as lifeless as I could possibly be. Tearing the letter into bits, he threw the pieces on my face and left the room breathing fumes of anger. I sat alone, amidst Debnath Pandit’s beatings, Baba’s scolding, Ma’s nagging, Chhotda’s sorrow, Geeta’s pride and Dada’s bossing. I buried my face in books. The exams were approaching. I knew that, but that did not prevent me from looking at Chhotda’s friends who visited our house. There was Jyotirmoy Dutta’s son Babua Dutta. There was Tafsir Ahmed, son of the editor of Takbir, so handsome one couldn’t take one’s eyes off him. Another reputed lady-killer was Sohan, the D. C.’s son, who lived in the saheb quarters. Whoever I saw, I not only fell in love with mentally, I even heard his personal thoughts in my own mind, “Where will I get a pitcher, girl where will I get a rope, you are the deep river, and I am the one who is drowning.” Yet not one of them bothered to give me even a second glance, and I began to feel like the ugliest girl in the world.
Just like Chitrali
and Purbani stopped coming, letters from penfriends also began to peter
out. I only replied to some really good, poetic letters written in neat
handwriting. A final year student of the
I did not reply.
He laughed and said, “Naked.”
Instantly the word that was coming and going from my tongue finally came out. I said, “Bye” and left without demur. Salim was left behind, sitting in a state of shock.
That very day Chhotda came back with the news. “It seems you went to the Tajmahal?”
“Who told you?”
“It seems you were sitting and chatting with some fellow? The whole city has come to know. You are really crossing all limits now.”
That I had crossed
limits I understood very clearly. But this girl who had managed to do so also
felt herself to be extremely dumb and stupid. How come she was unable to speak
to Salim! By leaving the restaurant without any warning, what was she trying to
prove? Was she trying to say that she was not a bad girl, that, she didn’t chat
with boys! She was from a highly placed gentleman’s family, a good girl, who
avoided the company of boys! She had to meet Salim only because he had come all
the way from
Since he met me,
Salim’s letters surprisingly became more passionate. There were more waves in
the sea. I was moving backwards, because his lips had not appeared like lips to
me but had appeared if not like a whole, atleast half a tandoori roti. I
gradually reduced my letters to Salim, and one day Salim, too, stopped writing
to me. No letters, none at all. After a very long time, suddenly I received a
My address was now no more Chhotda’s friend’s stationery shop, but Post Box Number 6. Suspecting that his own letters were being removed from the stationery shop, Chhotda had taken a box in the Post Office. We both had now begun to use that. I had an invitation to contribute to the Personal Advertisement Column of Bichitra, from the Section Editor. The request delighted me, but did not arouse any desire to embark on the path of advertisements. Even if I had forgotten this world, the people of the advertisement world could not forget me. I was no more, but I lived in the advertisement page. In the New Year titles, a name was given to my lost self. Some called me “scented rose”, others “Not a rose, but its thorns.” Hate and love. Both sentiments kept me afloat, even though I did not know anyone of the writers personally. Even when reminiscing, there were some who could not resist mentioning my name. Plenty of letters came to my address. Most of the letters offered friendship. Some blind admirers had also appeared. Shahin, junior to me by a year, waited for me everyday with a flower in her hand. With the flowers there were letters, she thought of me as a Devi, Goddess. The girl was rather shy. With lowered eyes and face, she would come before me, with a warm heart and a frigid body, I would remain speechless. The girl had no idea that her Devi was even more diffident than she was herself! From Chattagram, a millionaire called Pahari Kumar wrote letters in very neat rounded handwriting, on scented, blue-tinted paper. Chandana was at Aubokash, the day the postman delivered Pahari Kumar’s gift parcel. We were sitting and chatting in the fields, when the packet brought our conversation to a halt. As this was a packet, and had to be hand-delivered and signed for as received by me, so the peon had not gone to Arogya Bitaan, but come home. Inside the big packet, was a smaller one, and only after a few more small packets within, the final one revealed the gift. As soon as it was out, Chandana jumped a foot away and screamed, “Throw it.”
“Why should I throw it? What’s happened?”
“Throw it. Throw it. Throw it right now. That bastard dog, he’s sent something rotten, throw it.”
Not knowing what I was supposed to throw, I sat perplexed. Curiosity was consuming me to such an extent that, even though I didn’t want to, my hands wanted to go towards the present. Chandana’s hand plunged and removed my hand from the article. The present fell from my hand, on to my lap, and then face forward on to the ground.
“What is it?”
My ignorant eyes moved from the ground, to Chandana, and at Chandana’s nausea.
“Can’t you make out what it is?”
“No, I can’t. What is it?”
“This is a panty. Quickly, go and throw it away.”
I ran to the garbage pile and threw the gift along with the wrapping into it. Nausea was creeping up in me as well. Chandana actually brought up her rising nausea at the corner of the field. This had happened to Chandana before. About porno magazines like Desire & Woman, too she said, “I read them once, I vomitted in disgust. I washed my hands with Bangla Soap and then with Lux soap. While eating Saala I was scared some of it might get into my stomach.” Those hands never picked up those filthy things anymore. The world we dreamt of was a world where nakedness did not exist. To Chandana, a man’s physique was something very ugly. Yet she believed deeply in love.
Chandana had begun talking of Platonic Love. I asked her, “Now, what’s that?” “This was love and romance, in which there was no wickedness or filth.” My two eyes looked fascinatedly at Chandana’s two shining ones.
“SHENJUTI – EVENING LAMP”
Chandana suddenly left me after taking the Higher Secondary Exam. She left me all on my own. She didn’t really leave me; she was forced to go to Comilla by her father Subroto Chakma the man who was husband to her glum-faced mother Molina… the man who had been satisfied when his craving for male offspring had been fulfilled with the birth of two sons, after Chandana. Before leaving for Comilla, Dada had taken Chandana and me to the Dhaka Board to pick up our certificates. We had to go in the morning and return in the evening. In the afternoon, while taking us to lunch at the Chinese Restaurant Tai Tung in the Motijheel, Dada said, “What, Chandana, why don’t you keep your eyes and ears open?”
“Why, what is it that we haven’t seen or heard?”
“Aren’t you going to look out for a pretty girl for me? You’ve been studying in college for two years!”
“We were so busy looking at the boys, we had no time. When were we to look at the girls?” Chandana laughed. Excepting the men in her family, Chandana was the most free with my elder brothers. Thinking of the Raja of Chakma, Dada sadly clucked his tongue and said, “You made a great mistake, and will have to repent it in future. You didn’t give a Raja any importance!”
Chandana laughed loudly.
Dada’s sorrow did not end there. “When we visited Rangamati, we could have stayed as the Raja’s guests! Thanks to you we have lost this opportunity.”
Chandana laughed again.
“Who knows which Fakir beggar is written in your fate!” Dada said.
Telling us about Rangamati, she talked more about Cherag Ali rather than Debashish. There was a Daroga, a sub-inspector of police, by this illuminating name, which meant lamp. Cherag Ali said that his light glowed during both day and night. After some time, Chandana became serious and said that recently, Cherag Ali was glowing a little less as he had lost his job. Although it was a short sojourn, Chandana and I enjoyed ourselves, being able to get away from the familiar environment of Mymensingh. Before Chandana left for Comilla I had told her, “Don’t go. If you go, how will I survive?” Chandana had the same query, but neither of us had the answer to this question. Chandana had even told Subroto Chakma that she would not leave Mymensingh, she would stay at Aubokash with me, and continue her studies. He had not agreed. Chandana’s half-closed eyes were red on the day she was leaving. She whispered in my ear, “You watch, I will run away one day and come back to you. The two of us will live together all our lives.” From Comilla she wrote two to three letters a day. She wrote long and lengthy letters, describing each and every event of every day, every disaster. She penned her feelings, her loneliness and the emptiness of each day. How, whenever she looked at the red blooms of the Krishnachura tree, it reminded her of me. Reminded her of the life she had left behind her, every word, every sound, every bud and every flower. She wanted to regain her past life. I did not feel that Chandana had left forever. To me she had left only to return. We would meet again and once again rock in our cradle of happiness. Sitting once more in the stern of the boat, I would look at the colours of the sky, while with lapping sounds Chandana would row far away, way beyond the horizon. It would be a world where there would be no sin, viciousness, jealously, hatred, cruelty, meanness, where there was no wrong, no discrimination, no disease, no sorrow, no death. Here we would live with beauty, imbibing the scent of purity, and love would never leave our side. Suffering from depression, Chandana would write, ‘I am not feeling happy, as though I am above everything that is worldly. Liking, loving, all these words seem very old to me. I am unable to make you understand. I keep feeling I am not myself. I have been sad the whole day. When a little touch causes the mahogany leaves to fall peacefully like a shower of tiny flowers, I wish I could rest my head on the back of some jean-jacket, and go for a Honda ride somewhere far away. I know, and how cruelly I know, though I have never spoken of it to anybody, that for me these are only empty dreams. Hurt me! Unless I have tears in my eyes I don’t stay well. Never! Actually I cannot even tell you what has happened to me. Then they will know; everyone will get to know. I am just restless, I am dying of anxiety, yet do you know, you will never know the whole story, never. You who are my own, so close to me, so close to my heart, I won’t be able to tell even you. Poor heart! This heart is my biggest enemy. Just when everything is going well, just at that moment I change. This thing, called heart, betrays me. I am not well, not at all, I want to scream, I am continually being torn apart by a kind of jealousy and envy, and yet I cannot make anyone understand. I can’t understand against whom I feel this envy, why this rivalry. Is it that I want to be vociferous against myself? Do I not love myself anymore? Who knows… suppose some blue eyed Greek youth, some Apollo had spoken to me of love…! Everything is turning topsy-turvy within me. I do not feel joy in anything anymore. I remember Sadananda in Ashami Hajir (Here Stands the Accused) who groaned in some unspeakable torture. I think that I, too, am crying in some equally unspeakable pain. I can’t bear this mundane life anymore. Will you be able to uplift me on to some enchanting plain? My heart cries, who have you left behind, dearest heart, that your life is over and you have not gained peace as yet! Can you understand what I am saying? Can you? I want you close to me. I only want you – how long since I have seen you. Let us leave this world and all its emotional ties behind, and roam around with the ektara, monochord of a Baul, the Hindu devotional singer. You will be the Vaishnavi. Both of us will pick tung-tang sounds on the ektara, and sing songs like The bird tosses restlessly, it can’t tear its chains or break open its cage, it dies tossing restlessly within. Or Eyes are called mirrors, one day they will be lost, what I saw with my burnt eyes, will be what is left behind.
Apart from writing
long letters to Chandana, there was only one thing I did sitting in the corner
of the room, in the verandah, on the grass in the field, under the early
morning flowering Sheuli, horsinghars, in the shade of the Segun tree. I
wrote poetry. From various towns of the country, poetry journals came to my
address. From many districts of
“Be patient, be patient.”
“How much more patience should I have?”
“You must have more. Much more.”
“How many days?”
I was unable to keep my patience. I became more and more restless everyday. Finally I handed over the manuscript to Chhotda. After giving Shenjuti to a printing press in Chhotabazar, I kept at Chhotda’s tail, “When will it be printed?”
”It is going to take some time.”
“It will be printed next month.”
”Oof, so long!”
“You think the press has nothing else to do?”
“Will you take me to the press one day?”
“Why do you want to go? I will get it printed and bring it.”
This wish to go to the printing press was nipped in the bud by Dada, “Why should you go to the press?”
“I want to see how the printing is done.”
“Girls do not go to the press.”
“Is there any reason?”
“Girls should not go to the press.”
“Why not? What happens if they do?”
“There are problems.”
“What problems? People will stare?”
“Maybe not, but they will laugh.”
“Why should they laugh? What is there to laugh at? I am editing the magazine, why shouldn’t I go to the press?”
“Editing can be done even at home. You don’t have to run to the press like a man.”
Dada was unable to dampen my enthusiasm. I went to the press with Chhotda. Somehow I managed it. Black were the tables laid out dividing the room into columns. Sitting at them, were people picking out each type-set letter from its case and placing it on an iron sheet. For every word, however small, one had to reach out several times to pick each letter. How did they know in which place which letter was, how did their hands move so fast! I felt like spending the whole day at the press, watching how letters were joined together to form words. The printing machine was noisily printing beedi paper, incense stick covers, box covers for ointments, wedding cards and political posters. Seeing the manuscript of Shenjuti, the owner of the press, Hare Krishna Saha gave a smile, sensing a different kind of task. His smile was different, too. He said he would print it soon. Every format would cost two hundred taka. Not just that, more money was required to buy the paper. I went home and began selling all the paper whether whole or in pieces. Old Chitralis and Purbanis were put in the sun and dried in order to shake off the termites. Setting aside my weakness for old Sunday Sandhanis and Bichitras, I sold them all to the glassbottlepaperwala in order to collect money. I even managed to get some money out of the knot tied at the corner of Ma’s sari aanchal. From here and there I managed some more. Guarding this money like a miser, I took Chhotda with me, chose paper from a shop next to Hare Krishna Saha’s press, and delivered the paper to him. After this Chhotda bought the proofs home, and showed me how to proof-read. Since he himself worked for a newspaper, he knew. I relied on Dada for the money required to print the magazine. Though I did not get the money at one go, I did get installments.
The day 500 yellow coloured Shenjutis came home printed I imbibed their beauty, essence and aroma. Sitting on the bed, I began to fold the pages, pin them together and keep them aside. I quickly pushed them under the bed on hearing the sound of Baba’s entry into the house. Baba’s eyes could see under the bed as well. According to Yasmin, Baba’s eyes were like a vulture’s; no one could possibly hide anything from him. He knew what was going on in the house, even when he was not there. It was impossible to guess who were acting as Baba’s informers and when. He called Ma and asked her, “What is going on, what is the girl doing neglecting her studies?”
In a disinterested tone, Ma said, “I don’t know what poetry magazine she has printed.”
“What is a poetry magazine?”
“She writes poetry, prints a magazine.”
“What will she get out of a poetry magazine? Haven’t I told her to study? Who will pass her in the medical entrance exams? Will she pass with poems?”
Ma had to bear the brunt, mostly.
“Where did she get the money?” Baba’s curiosity was brimming over.
Ma told him dryly, “Noman gave it to her.”
“Why did Noman give her?”
“She asked him. He gave her.”
“Do you have to give just because you are asked?”
“It was his younger sister’s wish, so he gave it.”
“What does Noman get out of it?”
“Does everyone look for profit? She writes poetry because she likes to. Noman too used to publish a poetry magazine. Now Nasreen has taken it up.”
“I work days and nights to feed them. Is my hard work for them to waste their time in all these useless activities?”
Ma said, “Why do you ask me? Ask your daughter.”
Baba never came to ask me anything. He caught hold of Dada, “Why are you inciting her, just because she’s gone crazy, do you have to turn mad too?”
Dada mumbled, “I have not incited her.”
“Why did you give her the money?”
“I didn’t give her much.”
“But you did. If you hadn’t given her the money, could she have done all this?”
Dada swelled with pride and said, “No.”
“By writing poetry what do you get in life? Do you achieve anything?”
“Then why does she write?”
“Just like that.”
“Does poetry give you food?”
“No, it doesn’t give you food.”
“Do you get clothes?”
“No, you don’t.”
“Does it give a home?”
“Does it provide electricity?”
Dada continued to answer softly with his head bent.
“You have seen the life of the people on the rounds of the city. Have you found anyone who built a home by writing poetry?”
“Do gentlemen waste their time in useless work?”
“Does anyone except for the mad, write poetry?”
Dada did not give any answer to this one. Baba asked him the same question twice over. He still made no reply. Leaving the silent Dada, Baba walked out, making snapping noises with his shoes.
Baba kept his mouth sealed as far as I was concerned. He would speak to everyone, but not to me. When Baba did not speak it also meant whatever money he was giving would be stopped. I did not even have to go to college now, so I would not need rickshaw fare. In a way I was relieved that I would not have to face Baba’s red eyed, snarling teeth, abuses and orders to sit down and study for a while. This was Baba’s habit to stop talking suddenly, without warning. This would go on for many, many days. Except for the domestic help, he had stopped talking to almost everyone in the house by turns. When talk resumed, he himself initiated the process. He locked and unlocked his mouth at will; the key remained in his breast pocket. Very often we found it difficult to figure out for what reason he had stopped talking to a particular person. The reason for not talking to me this time was Shenjuti. Not even a week had passed since he’d locked his mouth, when he began writing letters addressed to me. Without opening his mouth, he put his words into letters and began to send them to me blending the polite and refined with the colloquial. The letter bearer was an employee of Arogya Bitaan, Salaam. Ma called him by his full name. Salaam was one of the ninety names of Allah. It was incorrect to call anyone directly as Allah, hence, if one added Abdus, or Abdul, then the name came to mean Allah’s servant. Since man was in any case a servant of Allah, Ma, therefore, called him Abdus Salaam, i.e. Allah’s servant. Ma had a neighbourhood brother called Quddoos. Everyone called him Quddoos, Ma called him Abdul Quddoos. After Abdus Salaam handed me the letters, Ma made me read out every one of them to her. I read loudly, so that not just Ma, but everyone at home could hear me. The letter was of ten to twelve pages. It began with a description of the advantages of obeying a father’s orders and restrictions, and ended with complete disappointment and desolation. In between there flowed a stream of moral advice. The final signing off was the usual, ‘your unfortunate father!’ I read the letter alright, but did not bother to pour over the books required to be studied for the entrance exams. I didn’t do so because I didn’t want to. Even though I did not spend any time on the kind of study Baba wanted me to do, I did spend my days and nights on a different kind of reading and writing.
Just a few days after copies of Shenjuti were sent to various poets and little magazines, plenty of letters poured in. With the letters came poems. They had to be read, corrected and set aside to be printed in the next issue. I had made Shenjuti a trimonthly. But I wished I could print it the very next day. It was unbearable to wait for three long months. There were so many letters that Baba told Ma in my hearing, “Hasn’t she stopped writing here and there to her penfriends as yet?” The penfriendships here and there stopped alright, but the poetry writing here and there did not. It continued. One day he carefully removed a copy of Shenjuti which was lying on the table in the verandah. After eating lunch, he read every poem in Shenjuti, while lying on his bed in the afternoon. After reading it, he put it into his pocket and went out. What was about to happen was something I was unable to gauge. At night, he called Ma, made her sit next to him and read out one of the poems from Shenjuti, and told her, “Look, here the poet is saying that paper is earth, the pen is the shovel, and writing poetry is to dig your own grave. The poet has spoken the truth, don’t you think? The poets dig their own graves. That is something a poet himself has said.”
Baba did not get any rejoinder to his letters. He came home with a dark face, and left in the same way. My tall, fair, curly haired filmstar, Uttam Kumar like Baba, kept within himself, Lord knows how many scoldings and abuses, all waiting to burst forth. After all, silence was also one of his many moral lessons. Since I was not weakening in spite of his attacking letters, what he did next was quite unique. He pasted a paper onto his door, on which he had written,
I am no more able to bear so much wrong
Was this what was written in my fate, all along,
My children have all gone to the dogs
Secretly I weep as I die drop by drop.
After reading Baba’s poem, I used some rice starch to stick a paper on the red glass of his red and blue windows. On the paper was written,
What is wrong that I all of a sudden have done?
My days and nights are spent
Sitting at Aubokash, going nowhere
I do not even take a step beyond the doorway.
When Baba returned home, I remained curled up in my room. Keeping my ears open for the reaction did not help. Baba came home silently, and as silently left. After his departure, when I went to check on the state of the paper on the window, I found another paper posted next to mine, on which was written:
“Staying at home doesn’t always make one virtuous
The man here gets to know, which is obvious
The happenings at Aubokash always reach his ear
That wishfully a life is being destroyed without fear.
Penfriendship has never lead to success
And illiteracy only causes life’s pillars
To shake and undergo stress.”
After reading Baba’s missive, I wrote again in big, big letters. While writing Yasmin’s head would just not move away from mine.
I know that, as though I don’t.
However, one thing I do not condone.
That beating is the only way to mould
Do fathers feel great pleasure?
When daughters weep and tears roll!
Baba returned by dusk and spent an hour in his room without calling anyone. After asking Ma for a glass of water, and whether any groceries were required at home or not, he left again. I sat in my room cowering in fear. My heart was thumping. Ultimately how explosive would this cannonade of public poetry prove to be, who knew! As soon as Baba left, I came out of my coil of fear.
Baba had this time pasted his poem, on the purple glass of the window.
The core of a father’s heart hurts when daughters weep
The bond between them only a father knows how deep
Today he is present, may not be so tomorrow
Hence on his daughter his wish is to generously bestow,
Education and culture and to guide her onto the path of truth
A path universally approved.
What else, would a father bless his daughters with, forsooth.”
This dialogue encouraged me tremendously. Everyone at home came to the window to read the poems pasted on the glass. Leaving Dada’s gifted diary in which I wrote poems, I got completely involved in this game of poetry on the window.
Is there no truth in Tagore?
Would anyone succeed in dismissing Nazrul of yore?
And Sukanta? Absolutely outstanding;
Does poetry follow the path of lies?
If so, then I will give an undertaking
That path, I will not tread,
I will not increase anyone’s dread.
As insignificant and trivial a person
That for jewels I do not die.
My evening lamp should be lit,
That is my most urgent desire.
As soon as one window was covered, the poems were being pasted on the next. Reading this one, Ma said, “Cut out ‘as trivial and insignificant a person as I.’”
“If I cut it out, what can I fill it with?”
“Write ‘as extremely intelligent a person as I’.”
The words were not cut, because Baba’s footsteps could be heard. Baba nowadays came home rather frequently. Apart from calls of nature, even to drink a glass of water he came across all the way from Notun Bazar to Amlapara. The purpose, of course, was poetry. It sometimes even happened that within half an hour of writing a poem, he returned without any rhyme or reason. He checked whether anything new had been pasted on the doors and windows of his room. Without any need, he would pass by my room, and glance in to see if I was there or not. We never came face to face; he avoided that and so did I. During these periods of mutual silence, this system of avoiding even the sight of each other was taught to us by Baba only.
Rabindranath wrote poetry without a thought.
Zamindar’s lives could after all be spent doing nought.
Does poetry really behove a student life?
This unfortunate struggles rather hard for children and wife.
Does he get the fruits of his strife?
Do any of them at all think of their father?
I do not see any such respect or honour.
How much I urge them to become worthy persons.
Yet there is still no awareness or perceptions.
Time waits for no one.
There will be none to stand by you, when father’s gone.
In student life, there is nothing called leisure
Repeatedly I have pointed this out, as I do even now in greater measure.
Neglect will only ruin your life.
this, the pain will be no one’s but mine.
Baba took quite sometime to write this verse. From Salaam, we got the news that Baba now took pen and paper to Arogya Bitaan, and sat scratching his head. Patients kept sitting in the waiting room. He would be scratching, writing, throwing and re-writing. Later, after telling his patients to wait for a little more time, he would make a round of the house. The round was to basically paste a poem on the window.
Reading this poem Ma snorted, “Hmm! What tough time does he have running this household? In seven days, he shops once. For that woman’s house, fish and meat are bought everyday. It’s not that he doesn’t earn a good sum. What does he give you all? Has he ever fulfilled any of your desires?”
Inspired by Ma I wrote,
How much do you spend on us really!
Half the time we seem to go hungry.
For Id we get clothes, sometimes not even this,
The thoughts in our minds never come to our lips.
All around us girls talk so much
In our house alone, in dread, we live as such.
Hope however still lurks in our hearts,
Baba’s love will surely someday wash away our sad thoughts
We will then be able to rise so high,
Maybe even touch the sky
To the other side of the horizon,
We will one day fly.
Reading the poem Ma said, “Why have you written about flying away?” Dada read it loudly and said, “Nicely written.” After this, Baba wrote nothing more. That there was a lot of difference between the world of poetry and the world of reality, was brought home to me one day by Baba’s screaming call for me, “Nasreen.” As always, I stood before Baba with head and eyes both lowered. He, too, as usual snarled at me and said, “What do you think you’re doing?”
I was silent.
“Can you spend your life chatting the whole day?”
“Can’t you understand that a donkey like you can never pass the medical?”
“You write poems? Do you think you alone can write poetry? Everyone can. Ask the maid Malleka; she too can write.”
From the “donkey” a sound emerged, “But Malleka doesn’t know how to write.”
“So what, she can speak can’t she? Did not Lalan Fakir recite poetry orally? Did not Hachhon Raja?”
“I am giving you
my last warning. If you don’t get admission into
entrance exams are next month. You will have to go to
Baba’s advice, I left his room with my head still bent. However, I didn’t sit
down to Maths, but to celebrate. Celebrate the joy of going to
jhikir Mymensingh, in
Baba had himself
asked me to take the architecture exam. What more could I have possibly asked
for? If I talked about studying Bangla at
Chandana that I was soon to become an architect. Chandana was taking the
second issue, Chandana had sent a poem called “Youth, the Name of an
In the boundless waters around me,
Play a number of handsome youth.
A storm rises in Draupadi’s breast
Resulting in an endless animated frenzy,
In which they are plundered and ruined utterly…
Obviously Chandana while sitting by the window, had been looking not only at the red blossoms of the Krishnachura, and the falling Mahogany leaves, but also at handsome young men. She had even gone and met one of them without really thinking things out in her mind. She had given a very graphic description of that meeting, that exchange of glances, that fluttering of the heart. The handsome boy had wanted to hold hands, but Chandana had carefully removed hers. She had only liked the exchange of glances, and this much had been enough to keep her wrapped up in a strange rapture for the rest of the day and night. I thought there was nothing as beautiful in this world as love. I listened to tales of love with complete absorption. In my imagination a Prince would come flying on the back of the King of Birds. “It is now the time for me to love, I too can let flow a flood of love, if I so wish…” I kept writing poems like this, as well.
Shahidullah, one of
Pipes do not play again and again, they play just once
Your loneliness and grace resound around you. Your lost illusions
Hover about you day and night, like inaccessible strains
Yet your pipe remarkably still silent remains.
With his poem Rudra had sent a letter, a letter written in red ink. He was keen to be introduced to the Editor of Shenjuti. He wanted to address her as tumi, because he thoroughly disliked the formal address ‘apni’. He wanted to know why Shenjuti was yellow in colour. The answer was simple— the light of the evening lamp was yellow coloured, hence yellow. The next letter effortlessly addressed me as tumi, as though he was someone very close to me! Since the capacity to make people close through letters was part of my character, I was not surprised.
Poems for Shenjuti were coming from the cities, towns, villages, market-places, roads, lanes, nooks and corners of two districts. From Kolkata, Abhijeet Ghose, Nirmal Basak, Chaitali Chattopadhyay, Jibon Sarkar and many others were sending poems. I printed them, not looking at the names but the poems. If the poem was good, even if the poet was new, or belonged to some remote village, I did not bother. I noticed that all around spellings of words were changing. The spoken word was being brought into the written language. Many alphabet and rolling vowels were being dropped by poets like Rudra. Even punctuation marks were changing, in some cases adapting the English ones. Although I found these changes strange, I welcomed them in Shenjuti. After all, language was no decrepit pond that would remain unmoving. In Shenjuti’s ‘Tidbits’ column, I gave news of other little magazines, their addresses as well, so that anyone reading Shenjuti would also be able to contact atleast 20-25 other little magazines. Not just news of little magazines, but also of where poetry meets were being held, who was writing and how. Whose book and which book was appearing soon. Shenjuti’s publicity was that ‘Any unadulterated poetry lover was unquestionably a claimant of Shenjuti. Shenjuti’s bright glow would wipe out all the darkness in the world of poetry. Shenjuti was eternally true and beautiful. For Shenjuti one had to pay only four quarter taka coins.’ Not that anyone was really paying those 4 quarters to buy Shenjuti. This magazine with no advertisements was being published out of my personal funds, and I was sending copies to everyone who wrote poetry or published poetry journals. Sending copies also made quite a hole in my pocket. ‘Read poetry, buy poetry magazines and poetry books’, this was the request I was making to the ordinary public through Shenjuti. I could not rest till I had converted the whole world into a world of poetry. I had really got addicted to poetry. It was my companion all day and all night.
‘At home, all alone I sit down to worship poetry, offering flowers and sandalwood paste with my hands
Unaccountably I spend the whole day vainly sitting idle.
At the door ungrateful words wink and laugh at me insultingly
In the silvery moonlight, words of critics and vilifiers await their opportunity.’
Reading Abhijeet’s long poems written in blank verse, I seemed to have moved far away from metrical measures and versification measures, on a stream of timelessness.
Rudra had sent his
recently published book of poems called Upodruto Upokool (
I still smell dead bodies in the air.
Even today I see the naked dance of death on this earth.
In my dreamy sleep I still hear the pitiful cries of outraged women.
Has this country forgotten the nightmare and the bloodshed?
In the air was the smell of carcasses.
On the earth were stains of blood.
Those who tied their fates and hearts to this blood-soaked soil,
And found in the wounds of their ragged lives a forbidden dwelling place,
Today their love for this dark cage, keeps them awake in the cave of night.
The flag of nationhood has once more been grabbed by the old vultures
Those who were covered in bloody shrouds and eaten by dogs and vultures,
Were my brothers, my mother and my beloved father.
Freedom is the dear one whom I have won, after losing all others.
Freedom is the invaluable harvest bought with the blood of my beloved people.
My raped sister’s sari is now my blood-soaked national flag.’
Rudra’s poems made me sit up. Made me stand up. Made me pace up and down the verandah. Such honest words, strong and forceful statements, could not but attract me. Rudra’s poems were the kind which had to be read aloud, recited before a room full of people, out in the grounds, in a public meeting. Poetry recitation was not something new for me. Dada was taught by Ma in his childhood, and when I grew up I was trained by Dada. I had now started instructing Yasmin. Yasmin had put her name down for the school recitation competition. Not only the school, but the Mymensingh District Literary and Cultural Festival was also on, and she had entered her name in the recitation event there as well. On the slated days she went and recited and came home with all of three prizes. From the hands of the Mymensingh District Magistrate she was given bulky volumes of the Rabindra-Rachnabali, Gitobitaan, collections of Nazrul and Tagore. She even began singing songs from the pages of Gitobitaan all by herself. She had a wonderful voice, and hearing it I always said, “She should have a harmonium.” There were no musical instruments at home. Dada’s fiddle was lying broken, and Chhotda had sold his guitar to buy Geeta a sari. Baba did not like songs and music. To ask him to buy a harmonium for Yasmin was to invite two slaps on the cheek. Yasmin’s dreams of singing had to blow away with the wind as of then. It was better to recite poems, to read poetry; at least no instruments were required.
When my head was
full of Shenjuti, and my heart full of poetry, Dada took me to
“Why, why was
there no need to go to
Baba said in a grave tone, “You do not have to study architecture.”
The architectural masonry of my own dreams came crashing down all of a sudden. With a heart full of cracks, I sat extremely depressed.
I did not have to
study architecture, “because I had to study medicine.” My name had appeared in
the list of those who had qualified the medical entrance.
What Baba brought into force at home, did not always remain in force for years to come. The strings were in his hands, he could loosen or tighten them as and when he wished. One fine day he suddenly dropped some of the strict rules he had made. Seeing no more letters from penfriends arriving for me, he at least did not try to wangle the new postman to take away my letters. The new postman was again delivering letters home as before. The practice of doling out groceries from the locked kitchen cupboard also ebbed. It was not always possible for him to come from Notun Bazar in time for every meal to be cooked. The cupboard now remained open. Ma, as before, was once again submerged in the sea of domesticity. When Jori’s Ma left, Ma had brought Malleka from the slums behind Nanibari. Malleka left even before the month got over. After looking for two days here and there, and not finding anyone, Ma caught hold of Halima, a street beggar from the neighbourhood. Halima, along with her mother, was eventually installed in the house. Out on some errand, Halima encountered some glassbottlepaperwala. That ‘wala’ had said he would marry her, and her happiness knew no bounds. Ma gave Halima a colourful sari and a new lungi for the paperwala son-in-law. The married Halima left the house very proudly. Halima’s Ma remained alone in our house, coughing away, the whole day long. It became difficult for her to do all the housework singlehanded. She frequently had fever. The day clots of blood appeared with her cough Ma personally took her to the hospital and got her admitted. Before two weeks were over, Halima came back to Aubokash. What happened? “My husband did not give me any food.”
Halima went back to scouring utensils, washing clothes and mopping the floor. Every so often she would say, “He troubled me so much I could not even sleep at night.” We were eager to know what kind of troubling she meant.
“He would cry out ‘glass-bottle-paper’ in his sleep. Since he spent the whole day calling out ‘glass-bottle-paper’, in his sleep, too, he thought the night was day.”
This Halima, within a few days, accepted another marriage proposal from some other ‘wala’ she met on the streets and left Aubokash.
We got used to the constant comings and goings of these drifting poor. No one ever discussed who was coming or going, why he was going or where to. If there were some maids, Ma got some respite otherwise she had a tough time. The whole problem was Ma’s. Whether there was help or not, we never suffered any discomforts. We remained unaffected. Ma’s eagerness to find help was always more than ours. Once a man, wearing a hitched up lungi and a torn vest had come into our grounds. I suspected him to be a dacoit at the very first sight. If he wasn’t a dacoit then why was he carrying a da or chopper in his hand?
“What do you want?” I shouted standing at the window.
“Can I do any work for you?”
“Cleaning and cutting with my da.”
I ran to give Ma the news, “A dacoit has come. Says he does work with his da. You know what that means! He kills people with his da.”
Ma was grinding some spices. She said, “Tell him to wait.”
I didn’t turn that way at all after that. Ma left her grinding and opened the door to go into the grounds. Quite happily she brought the man inside the house, and got him to clean the jungle behind the tinshed. She then not only gave him a plateful of rice with daal to eat, but also a piece of fish. Ma had no fears at all. Inspite of so many robberies in the house, Ma still did not think anyone was a thief. Ma heard about dacoities but still never thought anyone was a dacoit. When the man was wolfing down the meal, Ma said, “What Mia, don’t you have any daughters? Say around 12-13 years of age?” Ma was afraid of employing any young girls. That is why when she asked for a girl, she never wanted to cross the age group of 12 or 13. If she was to consider an older woman, then she should not be less than 40.
The man said, “Apa, eldersister, I have only one son, no daughter.”
“How old is your son?”
The man could not give the age. Placing his left hand on his waist, he showed “He is as tall as my waist.”
“Put him to work. What do you say? He can at least run errands.”
The man was so
taken with Ma’s behaviour that he brought his son, Nazrul, over the very next
day. Nazrul would stay and be given meals. His father too could come and see
his son, whenever he was working with his da in the neighbourhood.
Whenever the man came, Ma gave him food to eat. The man would take a look at
his son and leave in a happy frame of mind. Nazrul stayed for as long as two
years in this house. After which he ran away one day. When two months had
passed, Nazrul was persuaded to return to us by his father. Once he had
finished all his chores at night, he would come inside the room and act like
the Raja in a Jatra, an open air opera. He acted alone. We were his audience,
his listeners. Once in a while he would hold our hands and make us stand before
him to act as his Rani. So what if she had no dialogues. “Kire Nazrul,
what will you become when you grow up? Will you take part in Jatras?” Nazrul’s
eyes would be shining as he answered, ‘Yes.’ Initially Nazrul did not know how
to cook. He couldn’t even wash the clothes. Later he learnt everything. When he
grew as tall as his father’s chest, he was taken to work with the da, by his Baba. The day he left, Ma
collected whatever money she had tied in her sari aanchal, and any change kept
under her mattress, amounting to about 12 taka, and gave it to Nazrul’s father.
When she had no help in the house, Ma went to the slum behind Nanibari. If she
found no one there, she went to the banks of the
After the harvest,
when family members visited from Nandail, they would always bring pittha, rice cakes, with
them, mera pittha, Dada pounced on it whenever he saw it. This mera
pittha one could slice and fry, and eat with jaggery. Sometimes,
they bought the horned catfish or Magur, swimming in big vessels of water. Ma was
happy whenever anyone brought something. After cooking and while serving the
fish, she would say, “The fish were very fresh; must be from the pond.” If
anyone brought chilli pitthas, Dada alone ate half of them, sitting on
the chair in the inside verandah swinging his feet. Baba’s elder sister was
quite well-off. In the Kashirampur
After staying in
Chhotda had fixed
three lights on top of Ma’s dressing table. Under the bright lights Geeta
looked fair in the mirror. When she stood all dressed up, she was the splitting
image of the Durga idol decorating the Golpukur Par idol-making shop of Sudhir
Das. The only difference was that one was ten cubits or a forearm tall and the
other two. Whenever Geeta got the chance, she told us stories of
In this house there was no lack of love for Geeta. At Id, Dada bought Geeta a silk sari, for Ma there was a cotton one. Ma preferred brown or red coloured saris, but Dada bought white saris with borders for her. According to Dada, Ma looked like a mother, only in white saris. Whatever sari was bought for Ma, she always gave it to Yasmin and me, to wear first. Once we had worn them, not just worn but really used them to our heart’s content, did Ma wear them. Ma was deprived of many things, but she was not aware of them. After wearing even the white sari, if after two days someone came crying from the village with a tale of woe, she would give it to her. Ma heard many new stories about Razia Begum from Geeta. Geeta’s lame aunt was a great friend of Razia Begum. This aunt called Henna was the same one who at one time used to tutor Yasmin and me. Razia Begum had become the Matron of an orphanage in Notun Bazar. Geeta’s Henna Masi too worked in the same orphanage. The more Ma heard about Razia Begum, the more she got mad at her. This mad Ma would sit with a face full of bitterness when Baba entered the house. If Baba vented his anger, she did too. One day, Baba took out his whip from under the mattress, beat this angry Ma till she was soaked in blood, and left her fallen in the courtyard. Like a beheaded chicken, Ma tossed about tormentedly, crying out for mercy. Blood spouted from all over her body and the crows on the trees started cawing noisily and rousing themselves flew away to another area. The sight was inhuman, so we did not want to see it, and instead Yasmin and I sat with our door closed. None of us had the strength or the courage to snatch the whip from Baba’s hands. We remained turned to stone. Five minutes after Baba left the house, Chhotda returned. Seeing Ma fallen in the courtyard and groaning, he ran out of the house immediately. Straight to Arogya Bitaan. Picking up the wooden three-cornered name plate with Doctor written on it from the table, he fell on Baba screaming “Why did you beat my mother? I will kill you today.” All the people in Notun Bazar gathered there on hearing his screams. Some people caught Chhotda and held him back. Very little happened there. Only Baba’s forehead had swollen up slightly on one side. Nothing more. Chhotda had hoped for blood, but even though his wish was not fulfilled, he had to quieten down.
At home, extricating herself from the mud and slush in the courtyard, in an amazingly quiet voice, Ma said, “Let’s go Afroza. Take me where I need to go.” Wearing a burkha over her blood-stained sari, Ma left with Geeta. She actually went to the courts, signed the Talaq papers and returned home. Caressing Yasmin and my heads she said, “Stay well. People do lose their mothers don’t they? Think I have died. Your father is there, and your brothers. They will take care of you. Work hard at your studies.” With these words she put whatever little belongings she had into a little packet and left for Nanibari. Before Ma left, Baba had become quite friendly with Geeta. Baba would call Geeta aside and get all the household news from her. This was Baba’s eternal habit. He always had one spy appointed in the hope of getting all the secret news at home. Normally the servants acted as good spies for Baba. This time of course the spy was of a much higher status than of a servant. She was possessed of great intelligence as well.
That Ma was not there was something I did not feel the day she left. I had even suffered from a kind of secret delight in the notion that with Ma gone, I would have even more freedom to make noise at home. After a few days, not just in my bones, I felt her absence right down to my very bone marrow. I realised that there was no one to scrub my body and give me a bath, no one to spoon-feed me, no one to tie my hair. If the clothes got dirty, no one cared. Whether I ate or not, no one bothered to find out. In the evening there was no one to recite a string of limericks. Ma would know I was hungry before I knew it myself. She would always be anxious to feed me. Now, whether I was hungry or not, it made no difference to anyone. After Ma left, Baba had sent for his younger brother Motin’s wife from Nandail, to look after the household. She was grossly fat and had a jet-black complexion. Motin had married her when he was working for BDR in Rajshahi. When he had visited us with his wife, we had suppressed grins on seeing her. “She looks just like a maidservant!” No one went near this ‘maid’, but Ma happily exchanged her joys and sorrows with Motin’s wife, as though she were a very old friend of Ma’s. Seeing us stifle our giggles Ma had said, “She worked in a Mess. So what? She’s a very simple person.” Whether ‘simple people’ were maidservants or fakirs on the streets, Ma liked them. Motin’s wife cooked and fed us all. But who could possibly replace Ma! Who else would be anxious and worried about us as Ma! Serving us with greens like Kalmi Shaak she would recite, “Kalmi creeper, Kalmi creeper, when the waters dry up, where will you be? I’ll remain, I will. Beneath the soil. Just let it rain, I’ll pop up you’ll see.” There was no end to Ma’s limericks. She was able to easily recite any limerick she may have read when she was a child. She knew so many that sometimes I used to think I should write them all down, just in case she ever forgot them! Ma must have forgotten her limericks by now; after all, she didn’t have to feed anyone anymore while reciting them. If she was in a happy mood she could repeat the dialogues of films like Deedar, Shobar Uporey, Harano Sur, Sagarika, Baiju Bawra, Deep Jele Jai, by heart. Breaking the still silence of the night, she would sing in a golden voice, “The moon is still awake in the sky, but I have come to know you are close by…!” Now day and night, the still silence of the night reigned in the house.
Yasmin came back from school and shouted, “Where’s my lunch?” Motin’s wife said, “There’s none.” “No lunch, what do you mean? It has never happened that I have returned home from school and got no food.” That was true, it had really never happened. Lunch had always been served by Ma as soon as we returned from school. Yasmin shouted the house down. Coming to the conclusion that Motin’s wife was not being able to manage, Baba handed over the complete responsibility to Geeta. The altercation that Baba had had with Chhotda was wiped out automatically. It was as though a two, three or four cornered wooden object had never hit Baba’s forehead. The orders Geeta gave were carried out by Motin’s wife and Amena obediently. The days carried on in this fashion. The days may have gone on as usual, but Yasmin and I could not feel the same. Geeta ran around with us on the terrace, started a dance school in the house, took us to see films, but somehow something seemed to be missing. As soon as he returned, Baba would call Geeta to his room. We guessed he asked her all the details about the household and his children. He would have also been checking to see whether anyone was causing any problems.
Geeta would undoubtedly assure Baba that she was running everything flawlessly, that everything was well arranged and in good order. Even though it was banned, I told Yasmin one evening, “Let’s go to Nanibari and see Ma.” Yasmin jumped at the suggestion. Disregarding our fears, when we reached Nanibari in a rickshaw, Ma came running. She hugged us and wept aloud.
“Why are your faces all drawn? Haven’t you eaten?”
We nodded our heads, “We’ve eaten.”
Ma made us sit close to her and asked us all the minute details of what we had eaten, who cooked, who cared for our clothes and who made our beds. She personally fed us fish and rice and wiped our mouths with her sari aanchal. She carefully combed and plaited our unoiled and knotted tresses. Taking us aside she asked us whether Baba said anything about her. I shook my head. Baba had said nothing. I hid the fact that Baba constantly told us, “There is no irritating woman in the house, now you must eat your own food, study by yourselves, understand things on your own.” Ma said she was fine, Nana had bought her a sari, she had no lack of food here, and everyone was very fond of her. Ma repeatedly told us that in these last few days, both Yasmin and I had lost a lot of weight. Ma’s streaming tears wet her cheeks and soaked her chest.
“Do you feel sad without me? Do you cry ‘Ma, Ma’ for me?”
Yasmin and I exchanged glances. If we said, “We don’t,” Ma would be hurt. So we didn’t. Ma held our silent selves to her breast and said, “No, don’t cry, if you feel like crying chat with Geeta, or play ‘Name, place, flower, fruit’. Don’t cry any more.”
We nodded our heads. “Okay.”
Ma probed us with questions.
“How’s the cooking?”
“Why not? Motin’s wife is not a bad cook.”
“She puts too much chilli”
“Tell her not to put so much.”
“I found a hair in my greens.”
“Tell her to wash the Shaak well.”
“Ma, won’t you ever go back again?” I asked trying to hide the pain in my voice.
Nani was poking her teeth with a toothpick. After spitting out, she said, “Why should she go? Grow up yourselves. Then stay with your mother. Idun will not go to that house ever again.”
Ma said, “Noman has money. If he takes a separate house, then I can stay.”
After staring for a long time at the courtyard disconsolately, Ma spoke again, “You’ll see Ma; he will bring that Razia Begum home this time.”
“Does your father say anything? Does he say anything about bringing Razia Begum home or anything to that effect?”
I shook my head, “No.”
“Does your father eat at home?”
“Does he like the food?”
“I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t he say anything?”
Ma sat ashen-faced. Her eyes had dark shadows under them, her cheeks were stained with tears. She just sat like that. When we left, she stood next to the pond at the back like a faded rose, whose petals would disintegrate as soon as it was touched.
Since Geeta was running the household, it was expected that she would see to it that the maids and servants did not shirk their jobs, that the scouring of the utensils, washing of clothes, mopping of floors etc. was continuously done by her orders, whether the fish was to be cooked with potol, a kitchen vegetable, or shaak, or the daal was to be thin or thick, how many measures of rice was to be cooked etc., would be decided by her. While Geeta was playing boss and was in Baba’s good books, one day her younger brother, named Shishir Mitra, pet name Tullu, came to meet his sister. After that he came quite frequently. Geeta would call him into her room, give him things to eat and chat with him in whispers. Yasmin and I kept Tullu’s visits a secret. Geeta had now become a Mussalman after marriage, so it was an unwritten law in our house that no contact with any Hindu household could be maintained by her. When Geeta took Chhotda with her to visit her parental home, it too was kept secret.
Dada visited Nanibari to meet Ma, partook of Nani’s fabulous cooking, and returned home with his lips reddened with betel juice from the paan he had taken from her betel-leaf case. Chhotda, too, took his wife to visit his friends, dropped in at his in-law’s place in Peonpara and met Ma at Nanibari on the way back. To both, I said “Why don’t you bring Ma back?”
None of them made any reply. Neither Dada, nor Chhotda. They were quite happy. Aubokash without Ma did not appear to be unbearable to them as it was to us.
Dada had bought a motorcycle, a red coloured 100 CC Honda. He had bought it but didn’t know how to ride it. Kept in the verandah room, the Honda was cleaned by him twice a day. All the time he was at home, he would sit on his Honda, start the engine making weird noises and would go a couple of feet forward and backward within the room. He would admire himself constantly in the Honda’s driving mirror. This was the first time any engine-propelled vehicle had come home. Once, Baba had had the sudden desire to buy Zulfikar Akanda’s old car. Akanda Lodge was adjacent to M A Kahhar’s house. Baba had even given an advance of 50,000 taka. At that time we all had begun mentally driving that white Volkswagon. However, having found some fault in the engine, Baba did not finally buy the car. He did not even get back the advance; it seems one couldn’t. On the purchase of the Honda, Baba began to supervise the arrangements for it as well. The verandah door was to be kept shut at all times, so that no one could steal the motorcycle. At night he personally began to lock the door from inside. This red Honda bought with so much enthusiasm, which had yet to enter the roads, was picked up by Chhotda, who asked me to ride pillion. Chhotda, too had never ridden a motorcycle ever before. He had learnt to drive Baba’s hospital jeep in Ishwarganj. That was all he knew. The Honda stalled 30 times within a half-mile distance. People on the roads stopped 30 times to watch us. A girl had got onto a Honda; that was what they were staring at. In this town, if a woman sat on a Honda, it became a topic of jest or curiosity. Yet in this town, Nitu rode her own bike. Nitu, a student of Vidyamoyee school, took her sister Mitu to school everyday, riding pillion on her bike. She was the wonder of the town. Sometimes I wished I could be Nitu, and ride my bike in the streets of the town, without caring for anyone. When Yasmin talked of Nitu and Mitu, I listened to her fascinated.
learnt to ride the Honda, and began to use the bike for office work in the town
and in the cities outside the town as well. One day he gave me a ride on the
Honda saying, “Come, I’ll show you the mountains.” Unexpected pleasure broke
the windows, rushed into my world and flooded it. As soon as we reached the
shores of the
“What happened next? Where did he go?”
“He hasn’t reached anywhere as yet. He is still walking …”
I was keen to know whether Allauddin had reached some river bank or some banyan tree. But I never got to know, as Dada that night would not tell us anything more than Allauddin’s walking. As soon as I woke up the next day, I asked Dada, “What happened after that? Where did Allauddin go?” Dada said, “He’s still walking.”
“Yes, still walking?”
“Where will he go?”
“That you will learn later. Let him go first.”
After a week had
passed, Dada still said, “He’s still on his way.” When he would reach, where he
would reach, what would happen after that, Dada told us nothing. He wouldn’t
even start another new story. Obviously, he was still telling us one. Even
after a month, Dada said Allauddin was still going. Yasmin and I were deeply
worried. “What do you think? What will happen to Allauddin finally?” Yasmin was
of the belief that Allauddin would die of hunger enroute. What Dada thought, he
never disclosed. Dada’s Allauddin never reached his destination. We, too, never
heard any more stories from Dada. Right now, I wished our journey, too, would never
end. After Tarakanda Phulpur, we crossed some un-tarred, tarred and broken
roads till we came to the
I laughed and said, “I was reading a few pages of Dale Carnegie in the morning. May be that’s the reason.”
Dada roared with laughter. We floated again in the air.
At one time, I asked Dada, “Achcha Dada, you seem to treat everyone so well, talk so pleasantly to all, whether it is to that Nishibabu, that hat on head, stethoscope hanging around the neck quack doctor who cycles along the muddy paths, the chemist Najmul or with that doctor who has spent his life time in that hospital in a forest bereft of any human habitation – have you learnt Dale Carnegie by heart?”
Dada laughed and replied, “Dale Carnegie actually came to meet me. After observing my life, he went back and wrote his instructive treatise.”
The shacks by the wayside sold tea in tiny cups. To quench his thirst for tea, whenever Dada would stop at the shacks, he would say, “Don’t drink tea, tea wears away your insides. Haven’t you seen the stains that remain, in empty tea cups? However much you try, those stains just never go. Your heart will waste away just like that if you drink tea. Like the tea cup your heart too is getting ruined. It is becoming hideous. One day it will turn into a sieve.”
Ma mixed ginger in
black tea, and that tasted far better than the tea served in village bazaars,
full of milk and stale-smelling. Yet I happily drank this tea served in the
shacks. Of course I drank it only because I was away from home. The outside
attracted me. The village fields full of yellow mustard flowers and the village
markets full of various shacks selling wares, were very enjoyable to look at.
My fears of dying in a boat capsize disappeared as I watched the stunningly
beautiful colours of the sky, while crossing the
Lying in my bed at
night, and looking at the beams, I told Yasmin, “Suppose I am a mountain, and
half my body is
Baba got to know that we had gone to Nanibari. Baba called me and said, “Your legs have grown too long. Next time I hear you left the house, I will break your shins.” Baba’s threats did not work. I kept visiting Nanibari. I told Ma. “Ma, come home.” Nani said “Your saying means nothing. Send Noman or Kamaal. Send your father. If your father comes to take her, she might go.” Drawn-faced and dried-lipped Ma said, “Why will their father come? Even seeing his daughters’ suffering does not make him say anything. If he brings Razia Begum home, no one else but these two girls will bear the brunt!”
On the way to and fro from Nanibari I saw a printing press in the name of Aziz Printers. Halting the rickshaw, I got down and asked them the unit cost of printing a dummy-sized, 23” x 18” format. After which I took money from Dada, bought paper, and gave it to the printers. I then sat in the press myself to proof-read the second issue of Shenjuti. Muhammed Aziz was the name of the owner of the press. Dada knew him, and went once in a while personally to check Shenjuti’s progress. One day, after paying up the rest of the printing cost, Dada brought Shenjuti home. This time Shenjuti was on white paper. Taking a copy in his hand, Dada said, “Na, the printing is not good. From next time onwards get it printed at Jaman. Jaman is the best printing press. Paata was printed at Jaman only.” When Dada remembered his one time journal Paata, his eyes shone with happiness. The literary magazine called Paata that Dada and his friends published was really very beautiful. Paata’s stationery was printed on lovely transparent paper. Their letters, application forms for membership, even receipts for membership fees all carried a design in its transparency. Dada had even now preserved the Paata stationery as memorabilia. Once in a while he would pull it out, dust it and caressing it with his hands would say, “You’ll see, we will publish Paata again one day.” Of the three who published Paata, one was Sheila’s brother. Since Dada fell in love with Sheila, her brother Chikan Farhad had stopped seeing Dada. The other, Mehboob, had gone mad and was now chained up in a mental hospital. Dada could publish, why one, even ten magazines if he so wanted, but he could never again use the name ‘Paata’. Paata was not Dada’s property alone. Dada was only the joint editor; the actual editor was Farhad. Dada used to say, “What did Farhad do? I was the one who did all the work!” He may have got satisfaction by saying that, but he never got the right to name another magazine Paata. Dada wanted to publish a magazine called Paata once more. When Farhad heard this he informed Dada that he would file a case against him.
When I was immersed in Shenjuti a horrifying incident occurred at home. Yasmin had grown a small pair of wings on her back. Growing the wings was not horrifying, what occurred because of the wings, was horrifying. Yasmin’s wanted to fly not in order to cross the Bangladesh-India border, but only to secretly cross the boundaries delineated around her existence. A good-looking neighbourhood lad called Badal, of the same age as Yasmin, used to stand on the road when Yasmin went to school. One day he plucked up courage to come forward and talk to her. To avoid being spotted talking on the road, Badal asked Yasmin to meet him the next day in the Botanical Gardens. Yasmin was so keen to break out of the restrictions imposed on her that as soon as school was over, she got on a rickshaw and went straight to the gardens. Badal had gone there with an uncle of his. The uncle, Badal and Yasmin went around the garden, admiring the plants, appreciating the variety of flowers blooming all around, watching the river, unaware that a neighbourhood boy had seen them and had run to inform Baba. Baba went without wasting a moment to the gardens and brought them back. Catching Badal by his hair, Baba brought him home, tied his hands and feet with a strong rope, and whipped him the whole afternoon in the verandah room. Badal’s wails had the whole neighbourhood trembling, but Baba did not care. He pushed the half-dead Badal out from the house and straight into the hands of the police. He filed a case of girl kidnapping against Badal that very day. The police tied a rope around Badal’s waist and look him away. When his son returned from jail, Badal’s father, Samiran Dutta, left the neighbourhood. Not just Badal, Baba had whipped Yasmin too, behind close doors. Not an inch of her body was spared from black and blue bruises. A raging fever started, and clumps of hair began to fall from her head. After this incident, very often Yasmin would come home from school, and sit around disconsolately. Her classmates had begun to say, “It seems you were running away with some boy?” Mymensingh appeared to be a very vast town. But when people picked up juicy pieces of gossip like, “Rajab Ali’s younger daughter had run away with a boy,” and laughed about it and it came to my ears. I realized how small the town was really and how narrow the peoples’ minds were. If Baba had not made such a huge issue out of the incident, Yasmin would have come home from the garden. If she had been asked, “Why are you late from school?” she might have answered, “I had gone to Rinku’s house.” Rinku was her friend, so visiting Rinku after school was not such a great offence. That day Yasmin’s curiosity about Badal was not as much as her interest in seeing the gardens. Once she had seen the gardens, her desire would have been satisfied, and she would have kept her joy at having secretly broken her bonds to herself. No one would have looked with hatred at Yasmin accusing her of having “run away with a boy.” She would not have thought herself such a great sinner, and not have tried to hide herself desperately from the eyes of others.
Geeta had given Tullu something in a sack. A very tiny piece of news. But it reached Baba’s ears. Baba was in his room stamping his feet. A whisper could be heard. “What is she giving him?”
“Don’t know, may be rice,” said Amena.
“How many days has Tullu come?”
“What does he do when he comes?”
“Sits and chats.”
“With his sister.”
When Baba thought deeply about something, he would take off his spectacles with one jerk. He would sit with his head bent. In moments his eyes would turn red. He would pace up and down the verandah. His hands at the back. Sometimes at his waist. Once in a while he would pull back his head full of black curly hair. He would sit on a chair, then move it noisily and get up. He would then sit down again. Whenever we saw Baba like this, the only thing all of us at home could do was to wait, because we knew very soon an explosion would take place. This time, however, the explosion did not occur. In a quiet voice he called Dada into his room and told him, “Go and get your mother back.”
When we went to fetch mother back, Ma did not look shocked, as though she was expecting this to happen. On Ma’s wan face, a smile appeared. Ma could never hide her joys. Her happiness shone like dust grains from her eyes, lips and cheeks.
Baba looked askance at Ma’s presence in Aubokash. He did not say a word. But Ma never forgot to arrange Baba’s meals on the table. The way Baba wanted the household to be run, she now ran it even more efficiently. The floors in the house shone, the courtyard sparkled. Baba’s room was bright and arranged in an orderly way. The clothes-stand had washed clothes, neatly folded. The sheets on the bed were clean. Before Baba came home, his bed was made, with the mosquito net hung in readiness. Our hair was tied up, with ribbons in flower-knots at the ends. We got our food before we felt hungry, and water as soon as we asked. We got coconut water, without asking. Wood-apple sherbet, half-ripe guavas, ripe mangoes, blackberry mix, pomegranate pips were put into our hands and brought to our mouths. Ma’s presence gave us all endless comfort.
That year, no medical college entrance exam was held. Admissions were done on merit basis, according to the results of the SSC and intermediate exams. Anyone having more than 1200 marks in both exams was eligible. I had more than 1200 marks in both my exams. However, since I had less than 1300-1400 marks, I did not get Mymensingh, my first choice. Instead I was being sent to Sylhet Medical. In a second, Baba went into action. I was made to sign several application forms. He told Dada to get ready. Dada took me along, and we boarded a late night train. The train stopped at Akhaira station in the morning. We had to change trains there for Sylhet. At the station I got lost amidst the crowd of Paaniwalas, Beediwalas, Badamwalas, Jhalmuriwalas, Bananawalas, Biscuitwalas. Dada pulled me out and made me sit in a waiting room meant for women. I sat surrounded by women, some in burkha, and some without, a few ta-ta, aa-aa, howling kids, apart from fæces, urine and vomit. In their midst, sat I, a gentleman’s daughter, wearing ironed clothes. The train which left Akhaira station for Sylhet had people boarding it in a continuous stream. They pushed against each other in the rush. Lungi-clad people, pyjama, pant clad, people with naked feet, or, with shoes, hatted and hatless … with suitcases, trunks and sacks together in the crowd. Because I was a woman, I was given a seat. As my brother, Dada too got a place next to me so that my body did not come into contact with any other man’s. People with tickets for third class sitting in this second class compartment, did not try to get seats. They rested their bottoms on the floor, some with seats before them, others facing the hot ‘loo’ wind coming through the open doors. In the corner a group of cowering women huddled in a heap, sporting pins on their noses, and bolts on their lips. With their tickets in their pockets, the second class male travelers were talking loudly. Even though I was listening intently, I could not decipher a word of what they were saying.
“O Dada, what language are they speaking?”
dialect is beyond any non-Sylhet to decipher,” said Dada. After which he
casually haggled over the price, before he bought a packet of peanuts which he
proceeded to eat with a pinch of spicy powder and a lot of concentration.
Despite the heat, the crowd and the cacophony, I was delighted that I was going
to a new town. Dada pointed through the window at a field some distance away
saying, “Can you see that field. On the other side of this field is
The minute I
stepped into a
“Were you scared at night?” Dada asked.
“Arrey dhoor! What is there to be scared of?”
In the morning
after taking admission in the
When we came back
from Sylhet, Baba bought white Tetron cloth and ordered two aprons to be
stitched for me. I would have to wear aprons to college. To the college in my
own town, my father’s college, not the college which took two days to reach,
but the one just after the rail-crossing at Ganginar Par, past my old
residential school after the Chorpara turn, that college. If the rickshaw-wala
was young it would take 15 minutes, if old 25. The Sylhet chapter was closed,
it was now Mymensingh. According to orders I wore the apron to college, under
it I wore my dress and pyjamas, no need to trouble to wear the odhna, no
one bothered to know whether it was there under the apron or not. This
circumstance gave me great joy. There were no restrictions of the odhna.
Anyone, boy or girl, whatever clothes they wore, had to wear the white apron
over it. The apron had collars like a coat, pockets, and a belt at the waist –
I felt thrilled when I wore it. At college all the faces were unknown. Mostly
they were from
the second day the whole class was divided into four groups. The head, the
chest, the limbs and the abdomen. I was given the abdomen, or may be the
abdomen got me. Bas, now cut up the corpses and learn all about the
abdomen, whatever was in the lower belly, place it on a tray. Choose an empty
corner, the Cunningham book was available, one would read, one would listen,
another understand, one would question, one had to support and another raise
objections. This group study may have suited others, but it certainly did not
suit me. The hostellers had chosen their permanent companions for study, I had
no one – permanent or temporary. I was alone. I came alone from home by
rickshaw, after class I went home alone, and studied by myself. Baba had bought
me some huge books, which had big coloured illustrations in them. When I turned
the pages to look, Yasmin stared wide-eyed at them. When I studied, sixty
percent did not enter my head, another fifteen percent entered my head but came
out promptly, and the other 25 percent did not come anywhere close to me. Gray’s
Anatomy Book pleased Ma the most. Ma knew the names of all these books
earlier itself. When Baba was studying she used to arrange these books on the
table, and hand them over when he asked. In Baba’s time, the books were not so
big in length and breadth. In my time they had begun to resemble heavy rocks
and the trunks of trees. When I was bent over my books, whether I was studying
or not, Ma would silently leave lemon sherbet, or fried puffed rice, muri,
or even ginger tea on my table. At home I was getting an abundance of love and
care. Before I left for college, Ma would comb my hair, iron my clothes and
apron and place my sandals close to my feet. But as soon as I reached college,
my state became pitiful. I could not answer a question, nor do the dissection.
The girls from
I got over many things, but not my childishness. Apu was going home to Netrakona by train. Since train journeys attracted me like a magnet, I tried to get some of my casual girl friends to join me on a trip to Netrakona with Apu. Apu promised he would return in the evening. Leaving the road on the left that went towards home, we went right, to the station from college. The coal-driven train started on its journey emitting black smoke and a jhikir-jhikir sound. I was very happy while the train was moving. Whenever it stopped, I felt sad, and put my neck out of the window to look at the engine and pray earnestly for jhikir-jhikir. After reaching Netrakona, we ate at Apu’s house, and then toured the town’s grounds, finally reaching the station to catch the train back to Mymensingh. There were trains coming in every minute, but they were all going towards Mohanganj, not towards Mymensingh. Dusk descended and the darkness from the sky fell on my chest like a stone. I lost the courage to imagine the scene that would take place at home. Seeing the hostellers completely unconcerned, I wished I had their luck. I wished I, too, could lead a life free of home and angry red-eyes. The train finally came. It hardly moved at any speed, ultimately reaching Mymensingh at at night.
I spent the whole
journey trying to make up excuses to give at home, but none of them sounded
plausible enough. Throughout the way the moisture in my mouth, throat and
stomach gradually sank towards my lower belly. Since I was the only one with a
problem, the others came forward to find a solution. Apu would escort me home,
saying he had taken me and some others to visit Netrakona so ‘the fault was
his!’ This solution did not sound good to me. Finally, I took all of the girls
with me, saying they too were with me. I had not gone alone for fun with a man,
but had gone on a kind of picnic with a whole group of girls. This senseless
train had got us all late, thankfully Apu was with us – Ma understood. That
time I got away. Luckily, Baba had not returned home. Even if he had, may be he
wouldn’t have exploded, because that night he had got news of his mother’s
death. Baba’s Ma, my Dadi. Dadi visited us once in a while at Aubokash
when she accompanied Borodada. Dadi was dark, but beautiful. She had very sharp
features. Ma believed that this Dadi was not Baba’s own mother. Baba and his
elder sister were children of this Dadi’s elder sister. I had asked Borodada,
Dadi and Borophupi about this secret several times, but had never got an answer.
Even if she wasn’t his own mother, Baba was very fond of her. He sent her
saris, medicines for her ailments and when she was bed-ridden he went
personally to Madarinagar to see her. Baba decided to go to his village home
for Dadi’s obsequies, to be performed on the fortieth day after her demise.
With dancing eyes he asked Yasmin and me, “Ki, want to go to the
countryside?” At this hint of an invitation we leapt with joy. Yasmin and I had
never been to the village home. Dada and Chhotda had gone during the war.
Carrying Dada’s camera in my hands, we left with Baba for the village early in
the morning. After the strenuous travel by boat, bus, rickshaw, and in the end
walking, we ultimately reached the house. Somehow, we never felt the strain at
all. What could be greater fun than to be able to go out of doors! Seeing any
new place, village or town, was something I liked. My joy at visiting Nandail’s
Madarinagar was no less than my joy at visiting
In college the
Students League, Students Union, Jashod National Socialistic Students League,
Students Group etc., political parties, were bringing artistes from
I laughed and said, “That is not an error. I have done this purposely.”
“What are you saying? Are you a man?”
“Why should I be a man?”
“Don’t you believe in genders?”
“Yes, I do.”
There is something called masculine gender and feminine gender, you know that?”
“I do. But I do not like this Lady Editor, Lady Publisher etc. etc. Both men and women can be editors. Some words have incorporated some unjustified gender distinctions which I do not want to use. I want to call who writes poetry a poet, not a Lady Poet or Poetess.”
Dada threw away Shenjuti saying, “People will call you crazy.”
As soon as I got
to know my classmates, I barely exchanged two words with them, before I
proposed that we set up a literary society, called Shatabdi Chakra Centenary
Circle. I even told the girls whom I knew only casually. The bookworms were not
keen to join, but those who were not bitten by the book bug at all, jumped up
enthusiastically. Bas, collect donations, just jumping will get no work
done. I proposed that a small committee be formed, which could get down to
proper work. Since Amrita had got the second prize, I was very keen that
from Centenary a poetry journal like Shenjuti be published. As soon as
an idea arose in my mind, I plunged into action. Of course all my plunging was
silently done. Whoever could write in pure Bangla I would find them and say,
“Write a poem.” “I don’t know how to, Baba!” they would say. “Arrey,
you can. Life is a poem! You are living life, so why can’t you write about it!”
After strictly editing the poems that came in, I published a small poetry
journal. I went myself to Leefa Printers at
Hiding my face in shame, I said, “Are you mad! I have no experience of theatre at all. This is my first ever.”
I didn’t think one could learn theatre direction by watching a few plays on television, or making Chhotda take me to see some at the Mymensingh theatre hall or reading some in books. But when the responsibility really fell on me to direct the play, Chhotda told Partho to come as well. Partho took up the task with great enthusiasm. Almost every night, rehearsals were held in the broken old Mymensingh theatre hall. It was a story about a poor family in the village. Geeta was cast as the heroine. Of course this was not Geeta’s first role as heroine on stage. Earlier with various dance groups she had performed as Nakshi Kanthar Meye, Chandalika and Chitrangada. The new singing star Sohan who had joined Mymensingh theatre had been cast in the role of the hero. A little boy was found to play the part of Mangala. There was tremendous enthusiasm in each one of them; they were bubbling with earnestness and inspiration, and if required, they were even prepared to rehearse any time, night or day. After rehearsals at night, Partho sometimes went back to the hostel or spent the night at Aubokash. The day Aborto’s first show opened at the townhall, I was stunned to see the sets. The person, who had been given the task of creating the sets, had done an eye-catching job. An actual mud shanty, with actual trees planted in real earth and authentic fishing nets adorned the stage. The show was on for three nights. People bought tickets and came to see the play, and surprisingly the 300 capacity hall actually filled up in a matter of minutes. The whole huge affair happened as though in the twinkling of an eye. The theatre group of Mymensingh was quite well-known, and their best and most successful play was Aborto. On the posters printed for Aborto were the names of its two directors, Ishita Hossain Partho and Taslima Nasreen.
The play could
have been staged for a long time in this way, but Geeta got a call from
The whack on the back brought on all the trouble that it could possibly bring. Chhotda laughed uproariously and said, “Kire, it seems you are wearing a brassiere!”
At the top of his voice, Chhotda informed the whole household, “Nasreen is wearing a brassiere.”
Within fifteen minutes of my wearing it, everyone at home came to know what I was wearing. I pushed myself against the table as my head bent lower and lower over my books. The sorrow of having my secret revealed caused the pages in my books to get soaked. Ma came and said while caressing my head, “Why didn’t you tell me you wanted to wear a brassiere? I could have bought one in your size for you.”
My face, head and ears flushed with embarrassment. Once normalcy returned after the brassiere incident, Ma told me that she had worn one for the first time, two years after her wedding. Baba had become so incensed that he had thrown it away and angrily stated, “You wear fancy garments that wicked women wear! Is there no end to your desires?” Wearing a brassiere was being fanciful and fashionable, many obviously thought so. Women in the villages spent their entire lives totally ignorant of what was called a brassiere. Baba was a village boy; he was not used to seeing any extra accessories under one’s clothes.
There was one
thing in college that attracted me like the forbidden fruit of heaven mentioned
in the Quran. That was the college canteen. I was very keen to sit and talk
while drinking tea, like all the other boys. Even though I wanted to, I myself
was very often a stumbling block in the fulfillment of my wish. An editor of
the Neighbourhood, also a writer of wonderful poetry, Haroon Rashid, whose
poetry I was a great admirer of, was waiting at the canteen for me. He had come
“What’s up, don’t you have a class?”
“Go to class, then.”
“Dhoot, I’m not feeling like it. I won’t attend class.”
“What will you do?”
“Let’s go have tea.”
“But I have class.”
“Hai Sir’s class, isn’t it? You don’t have to attend that one.”
“What are you saying?”
“Arrey, come on now.”
As it is I was always ready to dance, and here was the beater of the drum offering his services. We went and sat in the canteen. In the canteen there would be supplies of tea and shingara, a savoury snack made with flour and a filling of potatoes. Habibullah’s friends would come. Beginning from anatomy the adda would end up with politics. We walked around the college premises proudly and confidently. Whether I was between classes, or bunking some unimportant class, wherever I went, there was Habibullah. He even began to come home in the evenings. If Baba came home, Habibullah would stand up and greet him “Salaamaleikum, Sir.” Baba would go into the inner rooms with a serious face. Inside he questioned Ma and got the reply that the boy was my friend. Being a Professor of the College this was one place Baba got stuck. He could hardly shoo away any college student.
The sports season
had begun in college. I had given my name for Carrom and Chess, and happily
began to play. I lost in Carrom, not that there was any reason to win, considering
the last time I had played was way back in Nanibari! In chess, I beat a keen
chess player, a champion of last year, and progressed steadily. Ultimately, a
game I should have won, I gave up out of sheer impatience, and became the
Runners-up. I found even the gallery classes unbearable. I didn’t understand 80
percent of what the professors were saying or wanting to say. The practice of
exiting the class was quite common here, something I had never seen before in
school or college. One left the class after giving proxy or through the back
door because the class was not to their liking. I too began to get out. Till
then girls sat in the front rows with their bottoms glued to their seats. They
gulped down every word their professors uttered. It seems only naughty boys
left class. So I fell into that category, only not a boy, but a girl! The
freedom of leaving class was also something I began to enjoy. In
“What college do you have at this time?”
“I have class.”
“Your college commenced at eight in the morning.”
“Yes, it did. But so what! The class at eight I didn’t attend.”
“What will you do going to college now?”
“I’ll be attending the class.”
“You can’t go wherever you want, at anytime you choose.”
“Your experience is only till school, you won’t understand all this.” I really liked the system. Go to class when you want, if you don’t, give proxy and come out. The word proxy was used much more in college. One may not attend classes, but without a certain percentage of attendance, one couldn’t take the exams. Friends gave false attendance. In every class, when the names were being called out, all you had to do was say, “Yes, Sir.” It didn’t matter at all who was saying it. Whether Toffajoler was answering for Mojammel, or vice versa, who was there to actually find out! By bending one’s head and saying, ‘Yes, Sir’, one present friend in a way saved another absent one. This present when absent, would be saved by the earlier absent, who would now save the present absent.
I was busy with
the fourth issue of Shenjuti. Letters, poems, literary magazines, books
etc. came in from Kolkata. Nirmal Basak had sent the ‘Toy of Time,’ Abhijit
Ghose’s ‘Lonely Man’ appeared before us. Their poetry journal Sainiker Diary,
‘Indrani’ we received regularly. Poems had been sent by Mohini Mohan Gangopadhyay,
Kshitish Santra, Chitrabhanu Sarkar, Shanti Ray, Biplab Bhattacharya, Birendra
Kumar Deb and Pranab Mukhopadhyaya. From various parts of
After class I
mostly went back to Jaman Printers rather than home. Jaman Printers were
located next to a clear lake opposite the
As soon as Shenjuti
had been distributed in all directions, I again became restless. How could one
not do anything! I called the members of the Shatabdi Chakra, and proposed that
we organise a function, a welcome to the newcomers. A fresh batch of students
were joining college, we would welcome them. What would we do in the function?
We would have everything – dance, song, poetry, theatre. Work was divided
amongst the members, some were to decorate the stage, others to rent a mike,
get invitation cards printed and distributed. Everyone got down to work, with a
lot of enthusiasm. Anupam Mahmood Tipu, who advertised in the personal columns,
wrote for the cine–magazines, had a sweet smile, excellent handwriting and was
a good artist as well, took charge of the stage decoration. I caught hold of a
classmate of mine from Muminunissa, Ujwala Saha, who kept in touch with
singing, to render the opening song. The rehearsals for the function began,
some were acting in a play, or reciting poetry, elocuting, or singing. The
President of the Chhatra Sansad (Students Union) called me and said that no
groups could welcome the newcomers before them. It was not very difficult to
frighten a small group like ours! After exchanging a few argumentative statements,
I retreated and allowed the Chhatra Sansad to go ahead. The second freshers
welcome was the responsibility of Shatabdi. I got the invitations for the
function printed. Haroon Ahmed, Professor of Anatomy was asked to chair the
function. He was more than ready to do so. It seems he too wrote poetry, and
was keen to read out one of his poems at the function. I had heard that
Nirmalendu Goon now stayed in our town. His wife, Neera Lahiri, was a year
senior to me, and they had rented a house close to college. After hunting
everywhere in Shewratola we found Goon’s house. The rooms were flooded with
rainwater. With his feet up on a chair, he was sitting on the verandah with a
small transistor pressed to his ears, listening to the cricket commentary. The
room was full of water. After handing him the invitation card, and requesting
him to read his poetry at the Shatabdi function, we came away. Whilst
Nirmalendu Goon was there, there was no need to import any poet from
Geeta wrote from
Ma informed Baba, “Kamaal has got a job.”
“How could he have got a job? He is illiterate,” said Baba.
“Education is not in his fate. He got married very young. Now he wants to run a household. You tried your utmost, but he just couldn’t concentrate on higher studies.”
“What kind of a job is it, may I know?” Baba was curious.
“Crew for Biman. It seems it’s a very good job, he will be able to go abroad as well.”
“Oh my sad fate,” Baba said with a deep sigh, “I tried to put one son through medical college, he didn’t qualify. He went to do his masters at the University, but returned home without taking his exams. Another son got a star in his SSC, but left studies and now has taken up the job of feeding people. People in the plane will shit, urinate and vomit and my son will clean it all up. Was this the job for which I hired five tutors to teach him? Was this the job he secured a star in his SSC for? Good, people will ask – Dr. Rajab Ali, what do your two sons do – I will have to say, one son roams around, the other flies around.”
Just when I was on
the friendliest terms with Chhotda, he was leaving. Chandana, too, had left
just when she alone was the one and only unparalleled being in my world. I
remained alone where I was; everyone else kept coming and going. Chhotda
promised to come often to Mymensingh, and take me to visit
Like Habibullah, another person blocked my path one day, but not with the intention of friendship; the purpose was different. Within the college grounds, in a Shyamganj accent he informed me that he was Shafiqul Islam’s brother, and that, like his brother, he too wrote poetry. He was standing for election to the new Chhatra Sansad, and wanted me to do so as well.
“I am not in politics.”
“There will be no question of politics. You will be standing for the post of literary member, with the responsibilities of editing the college magazine, organising functions and such things. You are qualified to do so.”
“But you have to canvass for votes! I can’t do all that.”
“You won’t have to ask for votes. You will win anyway. I can tell you with conviction, that our whole panel will get elected.”
“I won’t have to canvass, sure?”
“No, not at all.”
From the compound I took a rickshaw with the intention of going home. Following me all the way in flashes, was Helim’s smile spreading from ear to ear, white teeth in a black face.
The next day Habibullah caught me in a vice, face dreadfully dark. “What’s up, I never knew you were a BNP activist!”
“I, a BNP worker? Who said?”
“Everyone is saying so.”
“Who is everyone?”
“Don’t you know who everyone is? Aren’t you standing for elections from the BNP? Yes or no?”
“So that’s it! Yes, I am, but I am representing no party.”
“Is there any party worse than BNP? Students pick government parties so that they can reap advantages from it.”
“Passing their exams, what else?” Habibullah took off his apron, hung it around his neck and said, “Go, and withdraw your name today itself. If you must stand, stand from the Jashod.”
Habibullah himself was a member of Jashod, Chhatra League. His very close friend Tahmid, also Jashod, a good be-spectacled boy, came running. It seems he had told Habibullah that even though I belonged to no party, if I stood from Jashod, why literary member, I could stand for literary editor. They were willing to bend the rules for me. So, instead of making me a member as junior students were normally made, they were ready to be generous enough to make me the editor. Tahmid showed me a list of Jashod members. He said, “These are all students who have secured academic positions. And Anees – Rafique of BNP have spent 4-5 years in the same class.” If one was a member of Jashod at that time, it meant you were superior. Even in the Chhatra League I found a whole crowd of failures. Good students were either Jashod Chhatra League or Union members, or were not members of any party at all.
I searched out Helim that very day and told him, “Please cancel my name, I will not stand for election.”
“Why, what has happened?”
“I don’t understand anything of politics. The boys are saying I am representing the BNP.”
“Arrey, silly girl, the kids of Jashod are turning your head. You are not a member of BNP. But you are standing from BNP, because this time they are going to win. You are standing in the interest of the college, not the party. Can’t you understand this simple fact? Now if you contest from the Chhatra League or Jashod, there is no question of your winning.”
I kept quiet. I couldn’t raise my voice. I understood very clearly that if I were to throw back a big “No”, Helim would be very disappointed, and I felt very uncomfortable at the thought of distressing anyone. I looked at myself from Helim’s point of view.
“Also, all the leaflets have been printed. Now it will be impossible to cancel anything. It will become a scandal.”
I remained silent. Rafique Chaudhury and Aneesur Rahman, two prominent leaders of the Chhatradal came home and very sweetly made me understand that my contesting the elections did not mean entering politics; it meant promoting the college literary activities.
The season for fresh elections began. The college walls were plastered with posters. There were blazing speeches on the dais, leaflets scattered all over the benches in classrooms, at short intervals various contestants from different parties were to be seen meeting people in classes, corridors, in the canteen, laughing and speaking, asking for votes. I felt I should vote for every contestant, from every party. The president of the Chhatradal Aneesur Rahman offered me a cup of tea, and after giving me a huge smile, said, “Come along, lets go out on election publicity.”
Rafique Chaudhury said, “You are a party girl, you can’t afford to be so shy!”
I was a party
girl! Others, too, said the same thing. This reputation got attached to me. On
the day of the elections, I went to college, and voted for all those I thought
were deserving for the various posts from the Chhatra Union, Chhatra League and
Jashod, and returned home. The next day I got the news that the Chhatra Dal,
meaning Anees-Rafique group’s entire panel, had won. Last year the Chhatra
League had won, this time Chhatra Dal. Now what was to be done? We had to go to
I had been feeling
dull. The thought of going to
After returning to
“He’s an Army man! So he is physically very strong,” said Ma.
face remained fixed before my eyes, as did her unconcerned words. I thought, he
certainly had more strength. It was this extra strength he had exercised in
order to come to power. Secretly the dissatisfaction with Zia had been growing
in the Biman Bahini. Guessing that at any moment a coup could take place,
thousands of Biman Bahini people had been killed without trial. He had
rehabilitated many enemies of peace who had been hiding in holes. He had made a
traitor like Shah Aziz the Prime Minister. Religious politics had been banned
in this country. Now, that ban had been lifted. The snakes were now coming out
of their holes waiting to bite as they had done in 1971, siding with the
Rudra came to Mymensingh to meet me and said, “I don’t understand you at all, it seems you contested the elections from the BNP? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Do I have to tell you everything?”
“Don’t you have to?”
“Okay, do as you please. You have lost all respect and honour!”
Hardly had all the noise of the elections subsided, when classes resumed in full tempo. I had ascended from the lower abdomen to the chest. On one side I had to cut up dead bodies. On the other I had to study everything about the heart soaking in formalin on a tray. After dissecting the dead, when I returned home and sat down to a meal, my hands still carried the smell. Even if I used up a whole bar of soap to wash my hands, the smell did not go. I had gradually learnt to live with the smell. One day, when I had almost finished my meal, I spotted a piece of dead flesh at the corner of my hand. I had forgotten to wash my hands before eating. The day I carried a heart home in my pocket, everyone at home looked at it with noses and mouths covered, but wide-eyed. I happily placed the heart on the table, and opening the Cunningham book, began to study. I even showed them all which was the atrium, the ventricle, from where the blood came in, from the top to the bottom, then from there it went upwards and to all parts of the body. Ma’s eyes shone with great delight.
“Well, now my Ma has become a doctor, what do I have to worry about anymore, my treatment will now be done by my own daughter,” Ma said.
Dada asked, “Is this heart a man’s heart or a woman’s?”
“I don’t know.”
“It looks small. It must be a woman’s.”
“Who told you women’s hearts were small?”
“Won’t it be a little different?”
“No, it won’t be different.”
Yasmin standing at a safe distance from the heart said, “Bubu, is this what is called the soul?”
“May be it is known as the soul. But this is the heart, not the soul. The work of the heart is to pump blood and supply it to the whole body.”
“Then which is the soul?”
“The soul is the mind. Suppose I like someone, my nervous system will get the news first. The head is the abode of all the nerves, not the chest. The throbbing sound that can be heard in the heart is because the nerves in the brain are disturbed.”
Yasmin looked with unbelieving eyes at the organ, the heart.
With Habibullah I shed all inhibitions and spent hours talking about any subject. By developing an easy and free relationship, I was happy that I had been able to prove that boys and girls could be friends, and not only through letters. Habibullah’s unrestricted comings and goings at Aubokash had gradually become a common sight. Whenever Ma thought of relieving herself of worries, by hinting at this relationship developing into marriage, I would break her empty dream by saying, “Habibullah is my friend, just a friend, nothing more. Our friendship is like the one between Chandana and me, do you understand!” I don’t think my reply made Ma very happy. Habibullah was good-looking, very polite and well-behaved, both of us were about to qualify as doctors, there could not be a more ideal match. Even if Ma didn’t say so in as many words to me, she definitely muttered them to all others at home. If even a hint of any of these words reached my ears, I scolded her and told her to shut up. I was sure our relationship was pure friendship. So was Habibullah. Traveling with him on the same rickshaw did not cause me any flutters. It was like traveling with Dada, Yasmin or even Chandana. Habibullah knew that a relationship was developing between me and Rudra. At every opportunity, I would recite Rudra’s poetry to him. But one day Habibullah stunned me by coming home and starting to address me as ‘tumi’. It seems he did not like the more casual ‘tui’! Any amount of asking why he didn’t like it, did not elicit any reply, only a bashful laugh. I was not able to interpret the laugh at all. The laugh not only made me uneasy, it also frightened me. I got up from before him, and lay down in the darkened bedroom, hugging my sorrow to myself. Habibullah continued to sit on the sofa in the drawing room, and writing a long letter he handed it to Yasmin. Yasmin switched on the lights, and left the letter for me to read. Written in English, the essence of the letter was that our wonderful friendship could disappear at any time, but if we could give it a permanent status, then there was no question of it getting lost. He had thought over it himself, had even questioned himself several times, and the only answer he had got was that he loved me. Couldn’t I take this relationship beyond just friendship? I read the letter and recoiled with the pain of a broken dream. Insult and shame began to tear me to pieces. Pulling myself away from that sorrow, I followed my growing anger step by step, finally walking into the drawing room. Tearing the letter into shreds, I threw the pieces at Habibullah’s face, and screamed, “Leave this house immediately. Let me never see your face ever again.”
Habibullah, a polite, gentle, handsome, budding doctor, a diamond amongst jewels, stood for a long time, before leaving. Later he tried to tell me many things in college, but I never gave him an opportunity. He even knocked at my door several times but I did not open it.
Shahriyar, who had made quite a name for himself as a limerick writer, was my
“You are Dr. Rajab Ali’s daughter, aren’t you?”
No words emerged from my throat. I nodded my head.
Looking at my voiceless throat and eyes lowered in fear and shame, Moffaqurul Islam making his own tone sound as harsh as possible, said, “Is your brother’s name Noman?”
I nodded my head.
“Is your other brother’s name Kamaal?”
I again nodded my head.
“Is Kamaal’s wife’s name Geeta?”
Again the head.
“Your younger sister’s name is Yasmin?”
Moffaqurul also nodded his head. It meant he had tested the truth of the letter he was holding in his hand. Moffaqurul Islam had no idea that I had already read the letter. A crazy man called Abdur Rahman Chisti had sent me a copy of this letter himself. This man used to send me copious letters. He had been a pen friend for a few days. In those copious sheafs of his letter, there used to be everything beginning from fairy tales to difficult essays on the world’s trade policies. Most of it I never got down to reading. When suddenly the same man offered his love one day, I stopped writing to him. After that came this threat. If I did not respond, he would harm me in this manner. He would directly write to the Principal of Mymensingh Medical College that everyone’s character in my family was stinking. My father had slept with Geeta, my sister slept around here and there. I of course was another one. I had slept with Chisti, why only Chisti, I had slept with all his friends as well. My two brothers, too, were in the same boat. They pounced on a girl as soon as they saw one. Etcetra etcetra. Only stories of sleeping around. Moffaqurul Islam, I guessed, had believed every word of the letter.
Heaving a deep sigh, I said, “This is a baseless letter. I know about it. A man named Chisti has written it. I did not agree to his proposal, so he is taking his revenge.”
Ridicule was writ large on the face of the respected Principal. A crooked smile played on his lips.
“You think you are very smart, don’t you?” he asked.
I did not answer.
“Do you think I understand nothing?”
I still did not answer.
“I will not keep an undesirable girl like you in this college. I will give you a transfer certificate very soon.”
I now got
thoroughly shaken up. The Principal’s room, the Principal and the letter all
started swaying before me. My simple honesty had not been accepted by the
Principal. What he had accepted was a mischievious rumour mongering letter, a
letter which did not bear the name of the writer, and on which there was no
signature. The writer of the letter was a person the Principal did not know.
But this unknown person’s words were considered the truth by the Principal, not
the words of the girl he knew. Coming out of the Principal’s room I noticed I
could not speak to anyone, I could not hide the pain in my tearful eyes.
Without attending the rest of the classes, I went straight home. I lay down on
my bed with my face to the wall. When Yasmin came I told her the whole
incident. Moffaqurul Islam’s daughter Sharmeen, studied in Yasmin’s class at
Although I went to college, I could not concentrate in class. If while walking down the corridor I encountered Moffaqurul Islam, I passed him as though no one was there, and it was vacant space. Normally, if any Professor came before one, one had to raise one’s hand in Salaam. I had never liked this rule. I avoided it in any case. Because I avoided it, my reputation as a discourteous student spread. As I didn’t even bother about this bad reputation, I was known as a comic, laughable creature. It seems one had to Salaam if one wanted to pass one’s exams; that was what was being whispered about. I kept my nose, ears, face and mind far away from these whisperings. I attended all the important classes, and left college straightaway. On the way back, , I bought books on politics, society, literature from the bookshops. In the evening along with Yasmin, I went visiting here and there. I attended good discussion sessions at the Public Library. There was always something going on. When there was nowhere to go, I went to Padmarag Mani’s house and talked about poetry. Or to Natakghar lane where my old school friend Mehbooba’s house was. Sitting on a cool mat in the sunny courtyard, we would drink tea and eat muri, while talking about life’s simple and uncomplicated facts. Otherwise we went to Nanibari, to the long-left-behind world on the other side of the railway line. We spent time in that solitary secret world with the small baby sparrows, old torn kites, blue balloons and the weed-covered pond and bead necklaces and came back. Ma would say, “The way you two girls just go out by yourselves, what will people say?”
“Let them say what they please.”
“You all think yourselves very daring.”
“We are not doing anything wrong.”
“If your father comes to know, he will break your legs and make you sit at home.”
Saying “Let him break them,” we moved away from in front of Ma. I found Ma’s nagging extremely irritating.
Chandana no more wrote as frequently as before. What she wrote was all about her in-law’s house. Unlike the way she did earlier, Chandana spoke of dreams no more. She did not write poetry either. She had changed a lot.
friends from school came visiting to chat, to eat. These girls from
Again poetry got me involved. The intoxication of getting Shenjuti printed began to glow brightly. Upturning a sack full of skeletal bones over my innumerable literary magazines, poetry notebooks and Shenjuti manuscripts, Baba declared, “As far as I can see, you will not be able to qualify as a Doctor even in ten years.”
Viewing the Bride-to-Be
When he started working, Dada began to slowly change the décor of Aubokash. Removing the cane sofa-set from the drawing-room, he placed a wooden set with soft mattresses. He also installed a four-legged television set in the drawing room. He got a huge bedstead made of segun, teak wood, with a most novel headboard, displaying a man and woman lying naked under a grape tree. On the two sides of the headboard were minutely carved drawers. When each piece of furniture arrived in the house, we would look at it from a distance and up close, touching and without touching. He brought a dressing table with a mirror as well; that too was huge, with all kinds of carvings. A lion-legged ten-seater dining table arrived. So did a gigantic crockery cupboard with a glass front. Thanks to the arrival of so many heavy pieces of furniture, there was no place left to walk in the rooms. Dada very proudly informed us that all the furniture was made of teak wood and designed by him. Whoever came home looked at Dada’s furniture in amazement. They had never seen such furniture anywhere else. Drawing the design himself, Dada got another green coloured steel almirah made. His greatest delight was that such a piece could not be found in any other house. That was true, there couldn’t.
Dada converted the room opposite the drawing room into his office. He placed in it a table with drawers; and arranged all the Fison Company papers and medicine bags on top of it.
The whole purpose of getting all this furniture made was that Dada was to get married. A bride would come, and find a fully furnished home, in fact “a ready household.” He had bought expensive china ware and arranged it in the cupboard, and the key remained in his pocket.
Relatives went around looking at Dada’s decorated room and left saying, “Noman now has everything. Now all he needs is a wife.”
Dada had been
looking for a girl to marry for quite a few years. Girls were shown to him, but
he did not like any. Various families sent proposals, and proposals were sent
to many others. He would take along either a relative or friend to see the
bride-to-be. Every time before leaving he went through elaborate preparations.
He spent an hour bathing, using up a whole bar of soap. After his bath, while
singing a song completely out of tune, he applied Pond’s cream and powder on
his face, and olive oil on his feet and hands. Then apart from all the nooks
and corners of his body, he generously sprayed perfume all over his chest, back
and whatever parts of the body were reachable by his hands. Normally Dada was
very stingy with his perfumes. At home only Dada had a storehouse of perfumes.
Sometimes before going somewhere, if I asked, “Dada will you give me a little
scent?” First he would say, “There isn’t any.” If I grumbled, he would ask
several questions about where I was going and why. If he liked the answer, he
would take out a perfume bottle from the secret hiding place in his room and
say, “This is Earthmatic,” or “This one is Intimate, Made in
“I couldn’t even see what you poured!”
“Arrey, in that drop itself, 200 taka was spent.”
When Dada was not at home, I searched for the bottle of perfume in his secret place – inside his shoes. I never found it. He had kept it in a new hiding place. Just like a mother cat picked up its kittens by the scruff of their necks and shifted them from place to place, Dada, too, kept changing the hideouts of his perfume bottles. Anyway, he took ages over dressing up. He stood striking various poses in front of the mirror and looking at his reflection. He asked us, “Ki, aren’t I looking handsome!” With one voice we said, “Of course.” There was no doubt that Dada was handsome. He had thick black hair, a sharp nose, big eyes, and long eyelashes; even in height and breadth he was an extremely good-looking man. Wearing polished shoes and a suit even in summer, Dada would leave the house to see a prospective bride with a bright smile on his face, and every time he would return with a gloomy face. Every time the gold ring in his pocket remained there itself; it was never given to any one.
“Ki Dada, how was the girl?” I would ask.
Dada would wrinkle up his nose and say, “Arrey Dhoor!”
Everytime, he would make everyone sit in the drawing room of the house while he described the flaws in the girls he had gone to see.
Baba once sent Dada to see the daughter of one of his acquaintances. Dada went and saw her. On his return home, Baba sat down with Dada and asked, “Did you like the girl?”
Dada immediately wrinkled up whatever it was possible to wrinkle up on his face and said, “No.”
“How come? The girl was educated!”
“She had passed her B.A.”
“Yes, she had.”
“Wasn’t she fair to look at?”
“Yes, she was fair.”
Wasn’t her hair long?”
“The girl wasn’t short!”
“No, not short.”
“Her father’s an advocate.”
“He was the President of the Bar Council for a long time.”
“He had two houses in the town!”
“The girl’s uncles all have good jobs. One is the manager of Sonali Bank.”
“One of her cousin
brothers stays in
“Which of her guardians were there?”
“The girl’s brother and father were there.”
“The elder brother or the younger one?”
“The elder brother just got married a few days ago, to some very rich man’s daughter. The bride’s father was a District Judge.”
“Their house must be quite nicely done up.”
“Yes. They had expensive sofas etc. in the drawing room.”
“They do have a television surely!”
“What did they offer you to eat?”
“They served three kinds of sweet and tea.”
“What was the girl’s conversation like? Her manners and behaviour?”
“A docile and quiet girl?”
“Then why didn’t you like her?”
“Everything was fine, but …”
“Her lips …”
“Her lower lip was not flat, it was raised. I hate the sight of girls who have lips that pucker up.”
The search began for a flat-lipped girl for Dada. News of a girl came. She lived in Tangail, but her sister’s house was in Mymensingh, in our locality itself. The girl was brought from Tangail to her sister’s place. The date was fixed to view the bride-to-be. Dada dressed up as usual and took me and Yasmin with him to that house. The girl’s sister opened the door and made us sit inside. She even mouthed a few pleasantries, like, “You’ve just joined medical, haven’t you?”
“What’s your name?”
“Yasmin! My niece is also called Yasmin.”
“Nowadays it has really become very warm, and during these warm nights the electricity too has been going off!”
“Achcha, what would you like to have, tea or something cold?”
In the midst of this inconsequential chatter, the event of consequence took place. With a tray of tea and biscuits, Dano entered the room. Three pairs of eyes were directed unblinkingly at her. Dano laughed shyly, and sat down in a chair. Tea was being drunk, and along with it the meaningless banter continued.
“The chum-chum made by Porabari has become smaller in size, yet more expensive!”
“Dano is a very efficient girl. When she visits me, she takes over all the work. Tidying up the house, cooking, she does everything. She is interested in gardening as well. She stitches her own clothes, doesn’t give them to a tailor.”
“Do you know Qader Siddiqui’s house in Tangail? Very close to it is Nath Babu’s house; I go there once a month.”
As soon as we had smilingly taken leave from that house, I asked, “Ki, did you like her?”
Two pairs of eyes were observing Dada’s nose, eyes and lips.
“She had beautiful eyes,” said Yasmin.
“Her lips were definitely flat,” I added.
Dada’s nose now crinkled up, “Too flat.”
People at home were informed that because Dano’s lips were too flat, Dada had not liked her.
After a few months the news came that Dano had been married to the famous Tangail Muktijoddha, freedom fighter, Qader Siddiqui.
On hearing this, I told Dada, “Ish, look what you missed, you should really have married her!”
Dada said, “Luckily, I didn’t. She must have been already in love with Qader Siddiqui.”
In any case, the news of any beautiful girl’s marriage made Dada depressed. He kept lamenting aha, aha, as though some wonderful long-tailed bird had just flown out of his reach in a jiffy. After Dilruba’s wedding, Dada in an almost tearful voice had said, “The girl was an absolutely true copy of Sheila.”
“What do you mean by was! She still is Sheila’s true copy.”
“She is married now! So what if she is still …”
“Didn’t she have a sister? Lata! Lata too was a beauty.”
“She wasn’t, she still is a beauty.”
“Achcha, can’t we send Lata a proposal?”
“But she is much younger than you.”
“Actually, that is true.”
“I have also heard that someone is in love with Lata.”
“Then forget it!”
Dada had seen
every beautiful girl in Mymensingh by turns. They were either studying in
college, or had passed there IA/BA. Yet he had not liked any of them. This time
Jhunu khala said, “Come, I’ll show you a girl in
“She lives in Comilla and her father is a College Professor” Jhunu khala brought more news.
“The girl is very devoted to me, she is constantly calling me,” ‘Jhunu apa, Jhunu apa.’ She stays in the room next to me, in Rokeya Hall,” Jhunu khala said with a forced smile.
“Tell me whether she is pretty,” was Dada’s question.
Dada’s legs swung from left to right at great speed. “Her lips are flat I hope!”
“Not too flat again I trust?”
“No, not too flat.”
It was decided
that in an icecream shop in
In all the towns around Mymensingh, Tangail, Jamalpur, Netrakona, everywhere Dada had gone to see girls. He had come back with a gloomy face. The next was Sylhet! He was going to Sylhet to see a girl. The proposal had come from a colleague of Dada’s. I obstinately insisted on going to Sylhet, too. My obstinacy worked. Dada took me along with him, when he left for Sylhet. Throughout the train journey he kept saying, “Girls from Sylhet are usually very beautiful.”
I said, “The girl does appear beautiful in the photograph.”
“Yes, she does appear to be so. But all flaws cannot be always detected in a photograph.”
We spent the night
at the Fisons Company Supervisor, Munir Ahmed’s house on Sylhet’s
Dada was not at all in the mood to do so then. He kept taking the girl’s photo out of his breast pocket and putting it under a bright light. He showed me the photograph as well, saying, “What do you think, just look carefully once more!”
“I have already seen it so many times!” I said.
“See it again. If you look again something or the other will be found.”
“Dhoot! Did we come to Sylhet just to sit in a house! Come on, let’s go out for a little while atleast!”
“Your patience is really limited Nasreen,” said Dada in disgust. “We have journeyed so far. My body is covered with dust. I’ll have to have a bath.”
“What will happen if you don’t have a bath? Have one when you return.”
“Her nose seems quite okay, what do you say!” Dada’s eyes were on the photograph.
I sat at the window and looked at whatever little of the outside was visible. If only I could go out alone in the city! I could have taken a rickshaw and gone around seeing everything by myself!
The next day we went to see the girl. The father of the girl was a Police Officer, and the girl was a graduate.
“Everything was good, really fair complexioned girl, but … her front two teeth were a little raised. Rejecting the girl, Dada took me along to see the Mazaar of Shahjalal. I was not interested in seeing any Mazaar. I would have preferred to take a hooded rickshaw and enjoyed going around the city and getting to know its character and behaviour much more.
Thousands of people thronged the Mazaar. There were many standing on the shores of the lake feeding the black fish. Coming up to catch the food in their mouths, the fish would then dive back into the water! Bah! Dada said, “Do you know why people feed these fish? If you do, it seems you get a special passport to Heaven. Hazrat Shahjalal personally persuades Allah and makes efforts to ensure Behesht, Heaven for the feeders.”
Afterwards Dada gave me his shoes to hold, saying, “Stand here with my shoes, while I go and see the inside of the Mazaar. Shahjalal’s tombstone is there.”
“Take me as well.”
“No, women cannot go there.”
Dada went up alone to the tomb at the higher level. I stood and stared at it amazed thinking, if women went there how did it cause problems, and for whom!
While returning to Mymensingh by train, I told Dada, “So you didn’t like this Sylhet girl either.”
Dada said, “Sylhet girls are normally very pretty.”
“Then why didn’t you like her?”
“But you said she had buck teeth.”
“Arrey, not the toothy one!”
“Then who did you like?”
“Munir’s brother’s wife.”
“What are you saying?”
“Did you see her lips? Those were the kind of lips I wanted.”
“Will you marry her then?” I asked with my eyebrows raised upto my forehead.
“How can I marry her? She is already married!”
Dada looked despondently out of the window for a long time and suddenly said, “Did you see the black beauty spot on top of her lips?”
“On top of whose lips?”
“Munirbhai’s wife’s lips.”
“You had come to see the police officer’s daughter. Talk about her beauty spots. She had one on her cheek.”
“I didn’t even see the spot on her cheek. Actually one shouldn’t look too long at women with buck teeth. The eyes really get strained.”
Dada’s preferences worked even in the matter of names. Once, a proposal was sent to a girl because Dada had found out that her name was Nilanjana. He was absolutely dying to see Nilanjana.
“This girl has to be beautiful.”
“How do you know that?”
“How can someone who has such a lovely name be possibly ugly!”
Of course after seeing Nilanjana, Dada only said “Chhi, Chhi” the whole day. Dada rejected a beautiful girl as soon as he heard her name was Majeda, so going to see her was far from possible. His opinion – “I feel nausea as soon as I hear the name Majeda. Girls wth such names have no business to be beautiful.”
All of us at home had almost given up hopes of Dada’s marriage. Only one person had not given up hope, and that was Dada himself. He seriously believed that very soon he would marry the most beautiful girl in the country.
This belief of his
allowed him to continue to spend his life happily and enthusiastically. He had
bought a music cassette player. The earlier one, ‘Made in
This attraction to music dissipated a little when he hired a machine called a VCR from Amrito’s shop. Amrito had started a new Video shop at Golpukur Par. He was a very handsome boy. He was almost on the brink of marrying Jyotirmoy Dutta’s beautiful daughter. A bright green light of success was shining on Amrito’s business. Very often for a night or two, Dada would hire the VCR and watch all the Hindi movies available in the market. When initially two or three VCRs had come to Mymensingh, there had been great excitement. High priced tickets were sold and movies were shown whole night in darkened stairways and closed houses. Chhotda had once taken me to one of his friend’s house to see movies on the VCR. However, it wasn’t my cup of tea. I had returned home before the movie was over. That was my initiation into VCR-viewing. Later when the hiring of the VCR and watching movies reached a pinnacle of excitement, Dada actually bought one of his own. After which he not only sat up whole nights and days watching movies, he began to swallow them whole. Initially, I too sat before it. I was amazed. “Who left Dharmendra a horse in the middle of a field? Just a moment before there wasn’t any! Why did Hema Malini suddenly leap up and start singing a song? Did anyone sing songs while dancing on the streets?” My remarks buzzed around like a fly, hovering over the other viewers who remained absorbed. Unreal action movies were not to my taste at all. But Dada, whatever kind of movie it was, sat before the screen with his backside glued to the seat. However, I selectively watched movies which had no violence, no unbelievable storyline, and no laughable unrealities. Amitabh-Rekha became my favourites. Even more than them I began to like Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Naseerudin Shah. Showing contempt at my taste, Dada said, “Don’t get those dark moralistic films anymore. We are looking at slum life everyday, we don’t need to see it on the screen as well.”
After watching any director’s, any actor’s, any picture, Dada one day got caught like a Putti fish, in the net of one movie. The name of the film was Mughal-e-Azam. He went almost mad in his love for the film. The movie would play non-stop. He began reciting the dialogues by heart all around the house. He showed the movie to everyone at home more than once. From Nanibari, Nani, Hashem mama, Parul mami, infact even Tutu mama and Sharaf mama were called in to see the movie. Hashem mama was a great fan of old films. Given half a chance he would go around singing Hindi and Urdu songs of films seen in his youth. Dada had failed to pull and push Fajli khala into watching the film. Fajli khala did not look at the television as it would be a gunah, a sin to do so. If Ma got a film, she forgot about gunah. It was impossible for her to resist the temptation to see Mughal-e-Azam, so she had temporarily buried Allah and His orders and directives under her pillow and had come to see the film.
After which she had read her Ashar or Eshar namaaz followed by raising her hands in supplication to Allah, imploring that she be forgiven for her gunah. Ma was sure that Allah was very benevolent, and forgave all devotees who were sorry for their sins.
Whenever a guest came to the house, instead of tea and biscuits, Dada would show his hospitality by screening Mughal-e-Azam.
Even after we had given our hearts to each other, I had not met Rudra. Our introduction happened through letters, as did our love; everything was in our letters. Our exchange of hearts had happened in the course of a play of words. Rudra informed me that his birthday was on the 29th of Ashwin (mid-Sept – mid-Oct.).
“Tell me what you want on your birthday. I will give you whatever you want.”
“Will it be possible for you to give me what I do want?”
“Why shouldn’t it?”
“I know it won’t be.”
“Why don’t you ask and see?”
Rudra informed me that what he would ask for would be difficult, ‘painful and something hard to accomplish’!
The very next letter carried the question, “Will you truly be able to give what I want?”
Shrugging my shoulders, I had replied, “Bah, why can’t I? When I have said I will, I truly will.” Pride, in the shape of a tiny sparrow, seemed to have flown off my shoulder and settled down on the tip of my nose.
“Suppose I ask for you?”
“What is so great about that?” Amidst these trifling amorous bickerings I had said, “Okay go along, here I am personally giving myself.”
I loved Rudra for his words, for his
poems in ‘Upodruto Upokul’
Looking more modern than I was, I sported a pair of fancy goggles. I was wearing a pyjama-dress with no odhna as usual. Except for the red college uniform odhna, I didn’t have any at home, because like Chandana, I had objections to the odhna. Even after I crossed “the age for wearing odhnas;” I stayed at home without one, and went out as well. Telling Ma I was going to Nanibari, this long haired, lustrous girl, with no fat or muscle proceeded towards the small tin house on the field with a lake, towards Masood’s house. The little heart of this little girl, from a little house, and a little room, suddenly stopped beating when a bearded, long-haired, lungi clad youth came and said he was Rudra. My first sight of my lover was in a lungi! At that time Rudra looked like someone who could be a brother-in-law of Riazzuddin come from the village. I lowered my eyes though already hidden behind dark glasses.
“Take off your goggles. I can’t see your eyes.”
These were the first words from someone with whom I had exchanged my heart in innumerable written words, sitting before me for the first time face to face.
Rudra’s deep voice startled me. I took off my goggles, but looked only at the furniture in Masood’s room.
“How come you aren’t saying anything?”
I rubbed my toes against my slippers. There was nothing to look at in the corner of the nail of my left hand, but I continued to look fixedly at it, as though if I didn’t look after it at this very moment, the nail would rot and disintegrate. Even though I was not looking at Rudra, I clearly knew that he was looking at me, at my hair, eyes, nose, chin, everything. Into a room full of discomfort, Masood entered with tea and biscuits. I spent the time taken to drink the tea looking at my cup, at the faded sofa hand rest, at the dolls in the showcase and at times at Masood, and finally stood up.
“What’s wrong, why are you so restless?” asked Rudra, again in that deep tone.
My eyes were directed then at the window. The leaves on the trees were dozing under the strong rays of the sun. So was the pond. As soon as the water insects alighted on it, the waters danced to a mild ripple.
Rudra stood up and came slowly towards me. Glancing at his body, I realised he was shorter than me by two spans. When Dada quarreled with his short friend, Jahangir, he would brag frequently, “Short people are enemies of Khoda!” Rudra was short without a doubt and to add to it his face was covered with a beard and moustache. I abhorred the sight of a moustache, and even more so a beard.
I moved away, I don’t know whether from fear or shame.
Rudra said, “Why do you need to leave immediately?”
“You speak a lot in your letters. Why aren’t you speaking now?”
“Ish, what a problem this is! Are you dumb or something?”
The dumb girl crossed the fields of Masood’s house and went away almost brushing against the water insects and the water in the pond.
Before leaving, to the question at the door, “You are coming tomorrow, aren’t you?” she replied with only a nod indicating she would.
I went the next day as well. That day, too, I did not look up at him. My whole body, from my hair to the nails of my feet, was enveloped in bashfulness. I kept telling myself, “Speak, girl, speak, he is your beloved. You know everything about him, you have read and memorised his complete ‘Upodruto Upokul;’ now say at least a few words.” I couldn’t.
Rudra left. He wrote from
The shy girl replied with a twelve page letter. ‘This is what happens to me, you ask me to write, there would be no one as garrulous as me. Come close, and I would recoil in such a way that you would think the letter writer must be someone else!’ I, too, sometimes felt that I the writer and I the living woman, brought up within the boundaries of Nanibari and Aubokash were two separate individuals. One spread her wings and flew in the sky, while the other was chained physically and mentally to this earthly world, in darkness and confined to a closed room.
Rudra came to Mymensingh twice after this. He had really got along well with a couple of Masood’s friends. So his time in this town passed quite pleasantly. However, whenever I met him I remained in the same state. So many meetings had not calmed the thudding of my heart. I could chat non-stop with friends and brothers but when my lover came before me, my hands and feet turned cold. There was a lock on my mouth, whose keys were lost.
Rudra was coming, but where were we to
meet, where could the two of us sit and talk! Masood’s elder brothers had
voiced their objections, so that house was out. If we walked around the streets
of town, some one known to us would see us, and inform Baba in moments, utter
ruin! Where to go then? We went to my school friends Nadira and Mahbooba’s
house. They gave us tea and biscuits, but whispered that their family members
wanted to know who the man was. Even then, for girls of my age to visit
anyone’s house with a lover was considered indecent, after all, romance itself
was considered in bad taste then! When a girl grew up, her parents found a
groom for her, and made her sit on the wedding stool. The girl had to shut her
mouth and happily accept an unknown, unheard of man as her husband, and go to
live in her in-laws place – it was not that girls did not romance outside this
system, but only secretly, so secretly that even the birds could never get to
know. I had no reservations in letting the birds know, in fact not even in
letting a couple of friends know. I had let Chandana know every detail, and had
told Rudra everything about Chandana. I had earnestly requested both of them to
write to each other as well. They corresponded regularly. Most of my letters to
Rudra were about Chandana. Rudra understood how close to my soul Chandana
remained. Sometimes with hurt pride he would say, “Only Chandana, Chandana,
Chandana. You need only one friend. I don’t think you need me also in your
life!” Not finding a place to meet Rudra one day, I took him to Nanibari. Nani
made tea and served us, and suppressing a smile told Rudra, “If you want this
girl, you will first have to establish yourself, understood!” I lowered my face
in shame. Still, what was possible in Nanibari was out of the question at Aubokash. With Rudra I could think of
going to many houses, even to Nanibari, but never to Aubokash. Therefore, we sat in parks, or in the Botanical Gardens,
sat in the shade of the trees, and talked. The Botanical Gardens were slightly
out of town, near the
“Any more classes?”
“Do you have to attend?”
“Yes, means what? Can’t you miss them?”
I sat with Rudra bunking my classes. The campus emptied out in the afternoon, the canteen closed. Our love talk continued in the lawns, in the grounds, or sitting on the stairs in college, somewhat in this way,
“Do you get my letters regularly?”
“You must write to me daily, understand?”
“Are you writing poetry?”
“Just a little bit.”
“Try and write in iambic metre.”
“Iambic metre would be in sixes, right?”
“Yes. In the end you can add a couplet. Six, six and two.”
“I can understand versification with the number of letters in a line. I find versification with stressed and unstressed sounds difficult …”
“You will learn it better, the more you write. Initially, begin with letter number versification.”
“Eight, four and six?”
“You can do that, or even eight-four-two, six-four-two. Actually the minute you do six-four-two the iambic metre automatically emerges …”
“The poems in ‘Upodruto Upokul’ are mostly in letter number versification, aren’t they?”
“I keep writing and counting the letters, I find it really troublesome …”
“What is so troublesome? The poetical metre is in the sound, keep your ears alert …”
“Sometimes I feel I can’t write this kind of poetry.”
“Of course you can, just keep writing. Bring your poetry notebook tomorrow, let me have a look!”
“I haven’t written any good poems, I’ll show it to you later.”
“Just bring it, will you! Listen to what I say. Achha, one thing …”
“Why don’t you ever address me?”
“In what way?”
“Neither do you call me Rudra, nor do you say ‘tumi’.
“When do you do so?”
“In my letters.”
“That is in letters. Life is not only in letters. Why don’t you address me directly?”
Shame spread like a burning flame all over my face. Every time before meeting Rudra, I would either stand before the mirror or mentally rehearse saying ‘Rudra tumi, Rudra tumi.’ I even tried, “Rudra what will you eat, Rudra will you leave today itself,” and other such sentences, using ‘tumi’, but as soon as I came before him, on the actual stage, my rehearsals were to no avail and my performance fell flat. In spite of heartfelt efforts, I was just unable to free myself from the chains of my impersonal voice.
“Why do you appear to be so far away? You don’t let me touch you at all. How many times I have asked you to let me hold your hand. You don’t let me. What are you so scared of? Am I a tiger or bear or what?”
I knew Rudra was no tiger or bear. He was
a bright young man of the seventies. The seventies was the decade of war, death
and break-up. The decade of the seventies was a decade of poetry. In the poems
one could smell the corpses, hear the screams and protests. Rudra had evoked
this decade brilliantly in his poetry. When he talked of his life in
Even if my love for Rudra was not evident
in face-to-face encounters, it grew significantly through our letters. It was
his wish that I write to him everyday. He too wrote everyday. In case my letter
did not reach on even one day, Rudra would write in great anxiety, “What has
happened to you, are you forgetting me?” No, I could not forget Rudra. What I
couldn’t make him understand was that to write to him I needed some privacy.
With the house full of people, it was very difficult to do so. Rudra feared
that Baba would very soon force me into marriage. I let him know clearly that,
that was one thing my father would never do. He might murder me and throw me
into the waters of the
I began to laugh. I felt as though I had just heard some crazy proposal like, ‘Let’s go to Mars, or let’s drown in the sea!’ I couldn’t help but laugh. Rudra frowned and said, “What is there to laugh about!”
“I can’t help it.”
“What makes you laugh?”
“It just happens.”
“Aren’t we supposed to get married sometime?”
“Why is the question of marriage arising?”
“Why shouldn’t it?”
“Are you mad?”
“Why should I be mad?”
“Only mad people keep talking of marriage!”
“Don’t talk rubbish.”
“Is this rubbish?”
“Yes, it is.”
Rudra sat depressed. Depression was crawling towards me as well. I picked at my nails for a long time, and stared at the pages of my book without any reason, for even longer. There was an uncomprehending grief in my voice.
“Baba will kill me.”
“Let us both go and meet Baba,” said Rudra in a serious tone. My loud laugh pierced through the gravity of his voice.
“How can you laugh?”
I again felt like laughing. Certain scenes could possibly be conjured up in one’s mind with great difficulty, but this scene of Rudra and I standing before Baba, saying we wanted to marry and were seeking his permission or something to that effect – was a scene impossible for me to even imagine. Distractedly I tore at the grass.
“What are you laughing about, will you please tell me! Aren’t you ever going to think of getting married?”
“Why get married right now? Let me pass my medical exams first. Then we’ll see,” was my melancholic answer. The words were without regret, cool.
“That would be very late,” Rudra’s voice was steeped in anxiety.
“So what if it’s late?”
Rudra could not stand delays. He wanted to do things straightaway. He was already dreaming of marrying and setting up house. Looking up at Rudra, I felt, I didn’t know this man at all. He was someone very distant. He was like a spoilt, irritating overgrown kid. ‘Take your exams, pass your M.A., only after that does the question of marriage arise, what is the big hurry now!’, I informed him by letter. Rudra replied that taking or not taking the exams was of no consequence to him. He had no eagerness for such meaningless degrees.
He may have considered them meaningless, but I knew, my family members would want to see degrees. In fact, I didn’t believe that even a M.A. qualified boy would be considered suitable for me. Then to top everything, Rudra was a poet. Poets went hungry. That they were also very bohemian was Baba’s strong belief. Rudra said he was a poet, and that was his identity. As he would never seek a job, so there was no justification for him to pass University exams.
“No, but …”
I was petrified of Baba. It was impossible to make Rudra understand of what metal Baba’s heart was made.
Baba was Associate Professor in the
Department of Jurisprudence of
“So what is wrong in that?”
He did not say what was wrong but made disapproving sounds with his tongue.
When the month was over, I went to give Hilu an envelope with two hundred taka in it as an honorarium.
He asked, “What is this?”
There was no reason for Hilu not to understand the reason for the money. With a crooked smile on his lips, he said, “Are you paying me for teaching you to play the guitar?”
I kept quiet. Hilu did not take the money. In spite of hundreds of requests, he didn’t. Hilu was a rich man’s son. I knew he did not need money. But to study for free made me very uncomfortable. My embarrassment remained, along with great respect for Hilu who was abandoning his evening programmes and taking time out to teach me. In the midst of this sense of respect one day came Baba. Seeing Hilu sitting in the drawing room teaching me to play the guitar shocked him so much, it was as though he had seen a ghost. On seeing Baba, Hilu stood up and offered his Salaam. The response he got was eyes spewing hatred. Going into the inner room, Baba called me in a voice which could have blasted the house down. My trembling heart and I went and stood before him.
“Why has Hilu come?”
“He teaches me to play the guitar.”
“I’ll take your arse for guitar learning, Haramzadi. Throw the fellow out this minute. A scoundrel has come to my house. How dare he?”
Hilu must have heard Baba’s words. I could neither breathe in nor out. No, this could not be happening; Baba was not saying anything; Hilu was not standing flabbergasted in that room. Nothing but the strains of Raag Malkash were entering his ears. I tried desperately to convince myself that no untoward incident was happening in the house, that this was only a nightmare. In a room full of darkness, I stood rooted to the ground and my head seemed to float away from me like a gas balloon into the sky, to disappear behind the clouds. My body, I noticed, became incapable of moving. It was dead like yellow grass buried under the weight of stones, it felt cold and slimy like the toadstools which grow on them. Baba insulted Hilu that night and drove him out of the house. After throwing him out, he moved about violently all over the house.
“Who doesn’t know Hilu? He is a well-known goonda of the town. Aayee Noman, Noman,” screaming for Dada to come close, he continued panting, “Did you know Hilu was coming to this house?”
Dada nodded his head, implying both yes and no.
Besides this blazing fire Ma came and stood offering a palmful of water, “Hilu did not come to this house to do anything like a goonda!”
Baba did not even bother to hear Ma’s opinion. The fire continued to blaze, while the water from Ma’s palms fell onto the ground wetting it. The whole night, from my two eyes fixed on the beams supporting the ceiling, spewed hatred and anger towards Baba. Ma came and sat beside me on the bed sighing deeply.
“Your father has such arrogance! What does he have so much self-conceit about, I do not fathom! People will curse him. If you treat people unjustly, why will people not curse you? They definitely will.”
My guitar lessons came to an end for the rest of my life. The instrument lay in one corner of the room. With the passing of time it gradually became the dwelling place of dust and cobwebs. Many times I had thought of going to Hilu and begging forgiveness with folded hands, but I felt hesitant to stand before such a great person with such a small face.
Soon after this incident, Mitu arrived. A
wave of beautifying the house began. The house was decorated from top to
bottom. Mitu was the daughter of Dada’s Company’s top boss. She was to join
That same Munni’s beaming mother’s toes one day began to grow red. The redness increased and began to spread upwards from the tips of her toes. When Baba was unable to treat the redness with any kind of medicine, he one day actually amputated the big toe. Munni’s toeless mother gradually recovered her health, and again began to visit her neighbours and friends to gossip in the evenings. After a few months, the tips of her toes again began to grow red. The redness again spread. It spread right up her legs. Baba said she had skin cancer, and only if her legs were wholly amputated could the cancer be checked. No one in her house agreed to this. Baba went routinely to see Munni’s mother. Ma too went to see her. She personally heated up water, and soaking Munni’s mother’s feet in the water, would sigh deeply and sit and show her dreams of getting well again. Towards the end, Munni’s Ma’s body began to give off a horrible smell, and she was made to lie under a mosquito net. Bottles of attar were poured, but were unable to remove the stench. Her own family members did not want to enter her room. Yet Ma, an outsider, went inside the stinking room, stroked her body, and wiping her tears with her sari aanchal said, “Allah will make you well, keep your faith in Allah.” Ma felt sympathy for everyone. Just as Ma could go to the slums, and stroke the bodies of the dirty slum women, she could also go to rich men houses and soothe the bodies of their wives. Ma had requested me many times, “Let’s go and see Munni’s mother, poor woman is suffering so much.” I would refuse. Ma would go alone. Ma could do so, I couldn’t. Diffidence, fear and shame would just accost me and penetrate my very bones. Ma had stopped worrying about what people would think of her soiled clothes, soiled body or soiled life itself. After visiting Munni’s mother, Ma said, “What if she’s a rich man’s wife, she is sick, and because her body is stinking, no one goes close to her. They have kept servants, only they go near.” Ma was of the view that there was no limit to the woes of women, whether they were poor or rich men’s wives. Ma was considered a rich man’s wife by those slum dwellers who came begging. Ma would correct them. “Being a rich man’s wife and being a rich man are two very different things. My husband may be a rich man, but I am a poor woman. I have no money of my own.” Ma sometimes said, “If I worked in someone’s house and even earned five taka, that at least would be my earnings. Does anyone even give me five taka? The maids in the house have a better fate then mine.” Whatever Ma might have gained by becoming a rich man’s wife, she had lost a great deal more. She had been deprived of many opportunities. She had looked around for sewing jobs, but never got any. Since she was not educated, no one gave Ma any big jobs. And she was not given any small jobs because she was a ‘rich man’s wife’. Ma never got any work to do except her household tasks. Yasmin was about to take her SSC exams. Ma caught Yasmin as well. “Will you arrange for me to take my SSC exams privately? If you just teach me a little bit of Maths, I will definitely pass.” Ma examined Yasmin’s books. Very carefully she turned the pages, some of them she was even able to read without stumbling. She said, “This is not so very difficult!” Hearing Ma’s desire to take the SSC exams, evoked not just suppressed laughter amongst all at home, everyone actually laughed out aloud, including even Amena.
Meanwhile Jhunu khala had married her man
Ma was unable to study because she never
got the opportunity to do so. At times I thought, there were others, who given
the opportunity, still wasted their chances. Rudra’s name was on the rolls of
the University, but that was all. Neither did he attend classes, nor did he
take the exams. I told him to at least pass his Masters degree. I told him for
his own sake. He clearly told me that he was not made out for these things. He
hardly cared for academic qualifications. He was going to write poetry all his
life. Poetry was his passion, occupation everything. Rudra spent five hours
coming to Mymensingh from
When Rudra returned to Dhaka that time, within a few days, seven to be exact, I was about to enter class, when a senior girl came and told me that Neera Lahiri had sent a message, that I should go to her house immediately.
Abandoning my class I ran to Goon’s house.
I found Rudra sitting in Goon’s drawing room. There were two wooden chairs in the room, and a bedstead. He was on the bedstead. My heart danced with joy at seeing him. Whenever I saw Rudra that is what happened to me, my heart danced with joy.
“What happened suddenly?”
“Yes, rather sudden. I didn’t have time to write and tell you.”
Then there was silence while we sat facing each other. The blues of silence were filled with the smoke of Rudra’s Star cigarette.
Rudra took out a paper from his black shoulder bag and said, “You have to sign on this paper.”
“What paper is this?”
“I’ll tell you later. First sign.”
“Don’t talk so much.”
“What is the paper for?”
I asked, but was very sure that Rudra needed my signature on some memorandum, or was creating a poetry society, and wanted me to sign as a member. My eyes filled with conviction, glowed with the gentle light of dawn. My unwavering lips flew about like a flock of birds.
When I extended my hands to take the paper, Rudra moved it away. I was faced with a dilemma, a suspicion.
“What paper is this? I am not going to sign it without reading!”
Rudra’s moss covered eyes remained fixed on mine.
“It is a marriage document.” Rudra’s voice was heavy and broken.
My ears began to burn. Shaking off the burning sensation I forced myself to respond.
“Yes, marriage papers.”
“What do you mean, why?”
“Marriage papers for what?”
“Don’t you know for what?”
“Are you going to sign or not?”
“Amazing! Why should I marry in this way?”
“That means you will not sign?”
“Let’s see what is written!”
As soon as I took the paper from Rudra, he roared, “Boudi is coming, hide it.”
“Why should I hide it?”
“She will understand what it is.”
“What will she understand?”
“She will know it is a marriage document.”
“I’m telling you she will!”
“What’s the harm in her knowing?”
“There is harm.”
“What harm, let’s hear!”
Rudra snatched the paper from me. In a stony voice he said, “Are you going to sign or not, either say yes or no.”
“This is astounding! Why is there this talk of marriage suddenly?”
“There just is.”
“Who’s brought it up?”
“I never said I would marry!”
“I am saying so.”
“Can you clap with one hand?”
“Will you sign?”
Putting the paper back into his bag, Rudra stood up, saying, “Fine, I’m going.”
Astonishment was clouding my world. “Where to?”
“Why, what’s happened?”
“There is no need for me to stay any longer.”
Rudra’s tone had no regret. “No.”
“Just because I have not signed on the paper, are all requirements over?”
Without giving an answer, Rudra opened the doors wide and went out. He was leaving. Leaving. He was walking right over my heart which was brimming with love for him. He was really and truly going away. Going away. I was left behind alone. Rudra did not glance back. I was nothing to him now. He was not returning ever.
A sharp agony lifted me and took me to the verandah, took me towards his departure, and with two hands stopped him from leaving.
“Let’s see, let me see the paper!”
“Why else, to sign it!”
Rudra took out the paper.
Standing in the verandah, I scratched out a signature without looking at it or reading anything. Handing the paper to Rudra, I glanced sorrowfully at his instantly shining eyes and said, “That this signature had so much value I never realized before. I have signed. Are you happy now! I’ll take your leave.”
I crossed the courtyard of Goon’s house and came on to the road, as fast as I could.
From behind Rudra was calling, “Listen, wait.”
I did not turn back.
I took a rickshaw straight to college. I paid a lot of attention in the next classes.
Even then it had not sunk into me that what I had signed out of self-pride had wrought my marriage. I still did not call Rudra by his name, or address him as ‘tumi’, we had still not kissed; our only physical contact was through the fingers of our hands. I was then barely nineteen years old.
The Oscillating Heart
Two months after Rudra took my signature on the marriage document, he wrote a letter addressing me as ‘wife’. Reading the address I broke out in goose bumps. How strange and wonderful was this address! Was I then someone’s wife? Had that signature really and truly brought about a marriage! It was an unbelievable event. My own wedding, I had never imagined it would take place in this way. In fact that it would take place at all was something I had never had any belief in. I had signed the paper on the 26th of January, and after being submitted to the lawyer, it had been signed and sealed by him on the 29th. In an ordinary letter Rudra had informed me that our wedding day was the 29th. I tried to think of what I was doing on the 29th . Had I thought of Rudra even once that day? No, I hadn’t. I didn’t have the time. I was dissecting dead bodies. There had been a minor exam for which I had to study a lot. After the exam, I had come home and as usual, watched television and indulged in bickering with my brothers and sisters. Like every other day, I had read poetry, heard songs, and after dinner, had gone to sleep. After receiving Rudra’s letter, I told myself again and again, “Look, you are not unmarried anymore. You are now actually someone’s wife. When you marry you have to become a wife. That’s the system. Whether you like it or not, your signature on that paper brought about your marriage.” It had no effect. I was unable to absorb the matter either in my understanding or beliefs. I just could not experience the feeling that I was not the same as before. That I was now married like Nani, Ma, Fajli khala and Jhunu khala. Even Chandana was married. After her marriage, Chandana had written, “I am now a fearless person. Putting my life at stake, I have touched my dreams with my hands. I know now how to seriously dream. I have only one life after all. I have not made a mistake. I can now touch a blood-red rose by merely extending my hand.” Even if I had wished for the married Chandana’s passion, it was not aroused in me. It was beyond the limits of my understanding as to what kind of tremors could be felt by a woman when touched physically by a man, and what desires were aroused by those tremors thereafter. The men friends I had in college were only friends. Like Chandana. I hadn’t yet ever kissed a man. I had not felt any physical desire for anyone as yet. The only desires I was aware of, were those for water, tea or when it was very warm, for lemon sherbet.
The second letter written by Rudra addressing me as ‘wife’ fell into Baba’s hands. The postman had delivered the letter at home, and as luck would have it straight into Baba’s hands. Since Baba was very fond of opening and reading others’ letters, he read mine. Someone was addressing his daughter as his wife was something he read with bare eyes, then with his spectacles on, and in every other way possible. Baba began pacing up and down throughout the room. He ransacked my study table in search of more evidence. He took off his glasses, sat down, got up, all in rapid succession and finally left the house. But he could not concentrate on his patients, and returned home. This time he called Ma. Whenever there was some anxiety about the children, then Baba looked for Ma. Or when guests were expected at home, he would look for Ma. “Where have you gone Idun? Come here, will you!” Baba would then give an estimate of the number of people expected, how many people would have to be catered for, in fact even what items were to be prepared. Ma would listen very attentively to everything. She listened because at such times at least Ma felt herself to be someone of invaluable worth. That she was needed in this household, was the feeling Ma gained on such occasions and a strange joy seemed to cling to Ma just as did her sweat. On being called this time, when Ma came rushing to stand before him, Baba said, “Do you know who calls Nasreen his wife? Who has the courage to call her his wife?”
“I don’t know. I have no idea about all this.”
“Has she got involved with some boy?”
“I haven’t seen anything like that. She in fact chased Habibullah away from the house. No such boy has even come to the house. I don’t think she has got involved with anyone.”
“If she isn’t involved, then how can any boy address her as his wife in his letters?”
“I really don’t know.”
“You don’t know anything. What do you do the whole day at home? If you can’t even keep track of what your daughter is upto, then what is the use? I raised the height of the boundary wall. I made sure that no boys could see the girls. Now how come this boy is calling her his wife?”
“I know she writes letters. She prints a magazine. She has to write letters here and there, she says.”
“This letter is not for any journal. This is a different type of letter.”
I returned home from college. On other days Ma ran to the kitchen to bring food for me. That day she didn’t move at all.
“Ki, where’s my food?”
“The rice is in the vessel,” said Ma.
Amena too hardly seemed to be moving or stirring at all. At an impossibly snail’s pace, she brought and served me the rice, and with it some daal.
“Ki! What do you mean by giving me only daal with rice! Isn’t there any meat or fish?”
“You don’t need fish and meat everyday.” Ma’s tone was rough.
“Can one eat rice without fish or meat?” I ate two mouthfuls, and pushed the plate away, screaming, “Where’s the water?”
Ma said, “Water is in the tap.”
“Even I know water is in the tap, but someone has to bring it.”
Who was going to give me water! When I started grumbling, only then Amena moved majestically like an elephant, filled a glass from the tap and brought it for me. The house was seething with suspense. I gauged that something had happened. Ma did not wait too long in order to let me know what had happened. When I had stretched out on the bed with a book in my hand, she came with a grave face to my side and asked equally gravely, “Who is Rudra?”
“Why does he call you his wife?”
A glass of cold water upturned on my chest. I began to sweat under the whirring blades of the fan. The bright lights of the day turned into a moonless amavasya night in front of my eyes.
“Why aren’t you saying anything? Who is Rudra?”
I did not need to tell anyone who Rudra was! I only needed to know whether my letter had fallen into Ma’s hands alone or anyone else’s. If it had fallen into Baba’s hands, then my life was over that very instant. Today I had at least got some daal and rice, tomorrow I might not get even that. Softening a little, Ma herself said that the letter had fallen into Baba’s hands. After learning this, I went about hiding my lifeless body in isolated places. When everyone was asleep I got up like one deranged, and wrote a letter to Rudra asking him never to address me as his wife ever again in his letters. I had to always write to Rudra in this way, when no one was at home, or when everyone was asleep. Otherwise anyone could lean over to read what I was writing; anyone at all in this house had the right to read what I was writing. If I tried to hide, the eagerness to read became almost irresistible.
Everyday before Baba left, Yasmin and I had to ask for our rickshaw fare to school and college. Baba counted out the money and gave it to us. The next morning came. I could clearly hear Baba having his bath, the squeaking of his shoes, him eating his breakfast, in fact even the sound of him swallowing water. But like everyday I did not have the strength to hold on to my quaking heart and stand before him with my head bent to ask for the rickshaw fare. My very existence had become one big burden for me. I wished I could disappear into thin air at the snap of my fingers. I wished I was invisible! Watching the serial ‘Invisible Man’ on television, I had very often deeply experienced the need to disappear once in a while. Yasmin had asked for her fare from Baba without any anxiety. Inactive, I remained confined to my room, breathless, dumb, suppressing the pressures of my stomach and lower abdomen, hoping I would not have to face Baba. Before leaving, he stood in the inner verandah and shouted so that everyone could hear him telling Ma “Her studies are over. She does not have to go to college anymore. Everything is stopped. Stop giving her food. No rice is to be given to her!”
Baba left. I waited till for the postman and made sure that there was no letter from Rudra. Then, taking money from under Ma’s mattress, I went to college. Classes started in college from . If I bunked classes like this, my future was not just bleak, it was doomed, I gauged. The next day was the same. I had thought Baba would soften with the passage of time! There were no signs of his melting. I had to beg Dada for rickshaw fare to go to college the next day. Baba was not bothered. He had forgotten completely that I, too, existed in this house. Ma scolded me at the drop of a hat. She understood whatever Baba made her understand. Ma was like that. Whatever any body explained, she accepted. She unconditionally accepted any person’s argument, whatever it may be. If someone came and said, “Do you know someone fell from the arum tree and died,” Ma would say, “Ah, died!” and would tell everyone, “Do you know, someone in the neighbourhood fell off an arum tree and died!” Ma would never think that no one could possibly fall and die from an arum tree, and that no one could possibly even climb one. Ma believed every person in the world, and everything anyone could possibly say.
Rudra had stopped addressing me as his wife.
But I could make out my letters were being hijacked. The letters were being
removed not only by Baba, but by Dada as well. Even by Ma. Finally, I had to
seek Dalia’s help. Dalia belonged to
When no more letters from Rudra came home,
the incident was buried under the assumption that some mad poet under some
misplaced passion had one day addressed me as his wife. Thinking the fellow’s
courage had now obviously failed, everyone calmed down. The other reason the
incident got buried was because no one at home could ever imagine that some one
could honestly call me his wife, or that I could truly have become someone’s
wife. Moreover, I was coming home in time from college. There were no
suspicious delays anywhere. Most of the time, my face was buried in Anatomy and
Physiology books. Seeing this, the three pairs of Baba, Ma and Dada’s frowns
had finally gone. Baba diluted his anger in the tap water, because my exams
were approaching. The exam was called First Professional, in short First Proff.
There were three exams to be taken by a medical student. The promotional exam
from 2nd year to the 3rd was known as First Proff., the
one from 3rd year to 4th was called Second Proff., and
from 4th to 5th year, was called Third Proff. The 5th
year exam was the Finals. After the Finals, one became a Doctor. There was a
one-year training period. Then work. During the training period a stipend was
given, not a bad amount. If one worked, the pay too was not bad, but it was a
transferable job, you were transferred according to the whims of the
Government; here there was no question of individual choice. Of course, if you
had connections you could have your say. Connections, meaning people, a
relative in the Ministry, or some one important in the B.M.A. I was not
confident of passing my First Proff. All these years the home tutors had
spoon-fed me. In the medical college there were no home tutors, there was no
such system. There was no one to spoon-feed me. I had to feed myself everything
required. I was not very used to swallowing voluntarily. So anxiety bit at me
like lice in the head. To top everything the language of the texts was English.
There was no Debnath Pandit to say, “Put her in the Bangla medium, instead of
in the English medium, she cannot cope with the English.” There were no medical
texts in Bangla. There was no way to study except in English. The only saving
grace was that this was not English literature. There was no harm in case you
used wrong grammar or spelling while speaking or writing. But, I had to know
everything from the head to toe of the body, where what was and what their
functions were. In this, there was no forgiveness. While describing all this in
written English or in the spoken words, no one bothered about the grammar. A
thought came to my mind – in
I had to stay awake nights and study, said Baba, as “the exams were at the tip of my nose.” The tip of my nose which, even if I stood under the blazing sun, never collected a drop of sweat, my no nonsense, non-problematic nose, was almost getting flattened with the burden of the exams. When the exams approached closer, Baba assumed his former image. A storm of advice was let loose, as he kept saying, “One cannot cope with medical studies unless one works day and night, all twenty-four hours. Stay up nights and study; if you feel sleepy, pour mustard oil in your eyes.” The closer the exams drew, the sleepier I became. Along with my fears my sleep too increased. Baba would get up very early in the morning, switch off the fan in the room, and switch on the lights. The heat and the light woke me up. I would have to leave my bed in an irritable mood. To pour into my eyes at night, Baba bought a bottle of mustard oil and left it on my table. “What have I to do with this oil?”
“Whenever you feel sleepy, pour it into your eyes, sleep will flee in terror!”
Hidden from Baba, I merrily mixed the mustard oil with ‘muri’, puffed rice and ate it. By ten I was in the land of dreams, and chatting merrily with the sleep fairies. Once Baba came in and woke up the entire house with his screams, “Arrey, there are hardly three days left for her exams, and look at her, she has poured oil contentedly in her nose and gone to sleep!” Baba possibly thought that instead of pouring the oil in my eyes, I had by mistake poured it into my nose. Anyway, I did have to pour mustard oil in my eyes and stay up nights. I had to study Anatomy and Physiology from the beginning to the end. If I stayed up nights, Baba came and sat beside me. He kept me company, just in case, fearing ghosts, thieves, and solitude, I went back under the mosquito net. Ma filled a flask with tea and kept it on my table. At that time in front of my flattened nose I saw nothing, except the red eyes of my Professors.
The written exam was over, now for the Viva. Baba said “We must invite your Haroon Sir once to our house.” Baba’s intentions were clear – favour. Maybe I would pass my Viva with some influence. Haroon Ahmed came home with his whole family. Ma cooked the whole day. When educated people came home, it was not the custom for Ma to come before them. In the kitchen itself she arranged the food on dishes, and Dada, Yasmin and I carried them into the drawing room, and placed them on the dining table. Haroon Ahmed ate and talked, the entire discussion was about poetry. He wrote poetry, and would be happy if I was able to get his poetry printed. He had in fact brought piles of poems with him. One glance at them made me gauge that they were after ‘You came into my life’ ending with ‘will lead to some place.’ Haroon Ahmed was a student of Baba’s. Many of his students had become Professors. Baba was yet to become a full-Professor, he was still an Associate.
“How do I become one? Busy earning money for
you all, I was never able to take any major exams, after all it wasn’t as if I
was a bad student.” That was true, Baba was a good student. When he started
studying medicine, it had even happened that he did not have the money to buy
his books. Baba then came to an agreement with another student. After , when he went to sleep,
Baba would loan the books from him. He studied the books all night, and
returned them to the boy in the morning. After staying awake the whole night,
he would then attend classes in the morning. Studying in this fashion, all
night through, with books on loan, Baba scored the highest marks in the medical
exams, just as he had done in
Chhotda came to Mymensingh with his wife for holidays. He mostly came on the Id and Puja vacations. There were Pujas all the year round. Even if he didn’t get leave on every Puja, he would take leave and come. Geeta came for Id and also for the Puja festivals. In this house the celebrations were more for the arrival of Chhotda at Aubokash than Id and Puja. Real festivities started at home when Chhotda arrived. Ma would run to the kitchen, and cook pulao and korma for her son. She would cook and serve her son and his wife personally, making them sit before her. Ma would keep a sharp look out on whether they were eating their fill or not. She would fill Chhotda’s plate with big pieces of meat, so too Geeta’s. Caressing Chhotda’s head she would say, “I hope you eat properly, son! You must be working so hard!”
“Oh, no! Ma, what are you saying! I have a very comfortable job. Very good pay. I’ve just finished my domestic flights, now I’ll start on my international ones.”
Ma did not understand the difference between domestic and international. So far up in the sky away from mother earth, how could life not be tough? If you wanted to eat a particular variety of rice like birui you wouldn’t get it. Not even any fresh greens or vegetables. Neither could you sleep well, nor walk. If there was no ground under your feet at all, what kind of a walk would that be?”
“I went to the Arab countries, Ma. I saw the
Kabah Sharif at
That one could go to the Arab countries so easily was beyond Ma’s comprehension.
“Oof, it was very hot. Of course, if you had an AC car there would be no problem,” Chhotda said.
Ma sat and listened to whatever he said about
the Arab countries, completely stunned. That Ma’s ideas about the
Chhotda continued to go around the world, and sitting around him we, too, got to hear all the stories of his travels.
“The sea is much higher than the city of
“What are you saying? Really? How come the city doesn’t sink under the water then?”
“Dams have been built. So it doesn’t sink.”
“Have you seen the
“Yes, I have.”
“Did you go to the
“Have you been to
“Have you seen the
“Yes, I have.”
Chhotda appeared to us as tall as the
“Arrey no, where’s the time?”
“Nazrul, Russool, Milu, Shafique, have you met them?”
“Where’s the time!”
“Did you go to Banglar Darpan? Are you going to meet Manju Bhai and all?”
“I would have gone if I had the time.”
Initially when he came to Mymensingh, his visits to his friends were endless. He would sit down to adda with them as before. Now it was “no time, no time.” If for any reason he went close to the Golpukur Par, his old adda friends would see him and call him enthusiastically. They were still the same; they still indulged in adda, only Chhotda was missing. Chhotda now sported foreign cigarettes at his lips. There was a time when he had begged his friends for local Star cigarettes.
“Kire Kamaal, what is this cigarette called?”
“Bah, bah, Kamaal now smokes filter cigarettes. Give us one, let us also try these foreign brands,” his friends would say.
The whole of Golpukar Par stared round-eyed at Chhotda. Chhotda took out cigarettes from a pack and gave them to his friends. Once he returned home, he washed out the cigarette smell from his mouth first. He did not smoke in front of Baba and Ma, and he made sure no proof was evident that he did. Chhotda now wore foreign shoes, new shirts and pants – all his own. His distance from his bohemian friends was increasing; he only got closer and closer to Geeta. The beautiful girl Geeta, the dark girl Geeta, the Geeta who was turning fairer everyday, whose sharp nose was still pointed, whose thin lips still remained thin, who did not take sugar in her tea anymore, and carefully removed the fat from meat.
Chhotda brought us a variety of gifts on
Geeta wore fabulous saris. She was covered
with chains of gold ornaments. All her jewellery, Chhotda said was bought from
Ma said, “As long as my son is happy, its fine.”
After a pause, heaving a deep sigh she said, “There is something called mother’s pride. If Kamaal had given me the sari with his own hands, I would have felt happy. But he gives through his wife’s hands.”
Chhotda appeared to be happy. We felt happy seeing him so. I gave Chhotda and Geeta my bed to sleep on. Late into the night we played cards noisily on that bed. In the game of Spadetrump, Yasmin and I were partners and Geeta and Chhotda were together. In the middle of the night Ma would enter the game and say, “Kamaal Baba, you did not eat well at night, I’ll bring some meat and rice, eat it up.”
“Are you mad? If you can, give me some tea.”
Ma ran to the kitchen to make the tea, even so late at night.
I raised my voice, “Ma, a cup for me as well.”
“For me, too,” said Yasmin.
We sipped our tea, completely immersed in the enjoyment of playing cards. Ma lying under a torn mosquito net, warding off the mosquitoes sitting on her body with both hands, would be thinking ‘I must make paranthas and meat as soon as I wake up tomorrow for breakfast. Kamaal loves eating parantha and meat.’
Just because my exams were over, I kept
harping that I wanted to go to
“When will you return?” she had asked.
“In just a while.” I said so, because if I
didn’t meet Rudra, I would have to return very soon. Meeting him was completely
a matter of chance. I wasn’t sure whether he was in
“A while means how long?”
“Half-an-hour. Maximum one hour.”
“Come back to the office. I will leave early today.”
Reaching an hour and a half after the designated time, I found Rudra waiting. Rudra took me around with him. I just loved roaming around with Rudra in a hooded-rickshaw! I wished time would stand still. But time did pass. Rudra took me to visit two of his girl friends, and there chatted with me over tea and biscuits. Instead of an hour, four hours passed. Geeta’s office had closed, I had to return home. I did not have to face Geeta, because she remained in her room, lying down, with the door shut. I lay alone at night. No one called me for dinner, and no one came to talk to me either. I had stood before Geeta’s closed door twice and called, she had not opened the door. The next day, too, I had to go out to meet Rudra. When I went to tell Geeta that I would be going out, she again asked me in a dry tone “Where are you going?” I said Jhunu khala had called me again. I didn’t like telling lies, but her guardian-like treatment made my throat dry up, and I was forced to do so. She asked again, “You just met her yesterday, why again today!”
“Today my results will be available at the University Registrar’s building. I will have to go.”
“I can take you there.”
“Jhunu khala knows someone there, who can arrange for me to see the result.”
“You think I don’t have anyone?”
“She has told me to come so urgently, I will just have to go. She will be waiting for me.”
“When will you be back?”
I again replied “I won’t be late. Today I will be back early.”
Geeta had taken leave that day; she was going to take me around. So she told me that if I wanted to go, it was okay, but I had better be back before afternoon. Rudra was waiting for me on the verandah of the University Library. The minute I reached, he put me in a rickshaw and took me to his room in his lodgings at Basabo. In the ordinary room there was a bed. Sitting down I began to look around on my own, at the things in the room, and at the books. Rudra sat next to me, held me close and kissed me on the lips. The kiss descended from the lips towards my chest. The weight of his body made me lie down on the bed, and his lips began to descend below my breast. Under his body I began to pant. As soon as his hands reached the draw-strings of my pyjamas, I leapt away. Pushing him away, I jumped off the bed. Fear had dried up my soul. I said, “I will go now.” My lips felt heavy, I couldn’t recognise my face in the mirror. My lips were swollen. Rudra continued to lie on his stomach, saying nothing. He remained like that for a long time. I asked, hiding my swollen lips, what was wrong, and why he was lying down in this way? I told him again and again that I was getting late, and that I had to go. Remaining in that position for some more time, Rudra went into the bathroom. Spending a lot of time there, he returned saying “I was lying down because my lower abdomen was paining.”
Rudra did not reply. My voice was steeped with concern when I said, “If you don’t eat regularly, you get acidity. You must eat regularly. You shouldn’t eat too much of chillies. If your stomach is empty, then the acid secreted gets no food to work on and eats the stomach instead. This finally causes ulcers. These are called peptic ulcers. If you take an antacid you will feel better.”
“Enough of your doctoring! Now come along.”
Rudra took me out. He had to go to some friend’s house.
“Impossible, I have to return to
“Why do you have to go right now?”
“I have to. Boudi was very angry I returned late yesterday. Today she is taking me out with her.”
An angry Rudra dropped me back at
Rudra wrote, “That you had no option is your own fault. Why don’t you have an option? Why do you not give any value to what you want or don’t want? Why do you repeatedly forget that now you are very close to someone? Why do you forget that now your life is entwined with another ? Why do you forget you are someone’s wife? Kamaal asked you to stay. You also had permission from home to stay on for much longer. After this, how can you expect me to believe that you had no other option but to leave? How do you expect me to believe that you have done no wrong? Are you still a baby? That your wishes should be given no importance? Today, even in this small matter of your staying or not staying, you were unable to establish your will! Suppose ignoring your unwillingness you are given again in marriage, will you then too write that you are not to blame! Amazing! Why are you unable to express your desires? Unable to enforce your wishes? You are obviously not particularly concerned about my anger or happiness. You made it very clear that afternoon. Even after coming so close to me, you are still, like a fool worried about who will win or lose in our relationship. When will you gain some maturity? I have never wanted to establish my rights as a husband forcefully, I still don’t. And because I don’t, I have always given you opportunities to realise your own responsibilities. In how many ways I have tried to make you understand, but you think by accepting your wifely duties, you will be acknowledging defeat. Why don’t you just look at another ten married couples? I have never wanted you in that way. I have wanted you as a completely free being. I have wanted to keep you above social systems and servility to men. However, that does not mean you should not shoulder your own responsibilities, does it? We have been married for eight months, but you are still to overcome your diffidence. You still adopt illogical obstinacies to spoil normal life. I will never be able to forget our wedding day all my life.
There are some inherent rules of life, some systems. You can never deny these. I understand your problem. I understand it very clearly. In fact, probably, no one understands you better. And because I do, from the beginning I have tried to accept you in a reasonable manner. What I understand or know well, I have tried to make you understand as well. Otherwise after 26th January, our relationship would have been forced to end. Because I understand your sentiments, I do not disrespect them. But what if those sentiments disrespect me? That they should not, would have to be your responsibility. I never thought I would have to ever write about such things. I had always wished you would understand. And once you had, you would never ever do anything illogical anymore.
If you had only been my lover, not my wife, then may be your going away would not have hurt me so much. It would then have only hurt my feelings, but now it hurts my pride.
Why do you deceive yourself so much? Does one cheat on one’s own wishes?”
I was very upset on reading Rudra’s letter. So upset that I wrote, “If you dislike me so much, if my illogical actions hurt your pride to such an extent, then what are you hesitating about? There is no dearth of likeable girls! Surely they do not live with my kind of crass sentiments. Or spoil normal life with illogical obstinacies. They surely do not deny the inherent customs and rules of life. Or, like fools, think of winning or losing. They will beautifully assume their wifely duties, and much before eight months of marriage will have lost their diffidence. Choose one of these. I will never have any objections to matters which concern your happiness. From my childhood I have not been brought up in very happy circumstances. I have therefore learnt to accept any kind of sorrow without much stress. For your happiness, when I hear about the event of your having chosen a new life, I will not be surprised. I never wish to be an obstacle in the path of your happiness. If you want freedom from this unbearable life, please take it. I have nothing to say. I will never blame you. My weaknesses will remain my own. My loneliness will remain mine. How long is life! Very soon it will end, suddenly one day I will die. In all this time I have realized that I do not have the power to satisfy any man. I really do not have the capacity of making a happy married life. I am a totally unreasonable person. Please forgive me. I never dreamt I would someday write such a letter to you. But like a fool, I had hoped for happiness in life, and had seen rosy dreams. Reality has made me understand that the boundaries of life are not so vast. In fact one almost became breathless trying to achieve something, and had to lose much more in the bargain. Yet, ignorant me, I had not wanted to lose but to gain. That is why I have now lost myself. That is why even before I have completed a year of marriage, I am writing such a painful letter. Forgive me for my weaknesses. I will never forget your generosity.’
On receiving my letter, Rudra replied, ‘With all your weaknesses you will remain with me forever. Over almost three years I have worked very hard to bring discipline back to my life, and that, you cannot destroy. My discipline and steadiness is now in you. Enough is enough; you have done enough – now all this madness will not do. ‘I do not want to be an obstacle in the path of your happiness’, repeat this phrase to yourself a hundred times over, you will not say this to me a second time. The entire responsibility of your life is now mine. You do not have to think anymore of its welfare. Why do you forget this fact? And please do not hurt me for your own fancies ever again. I am not very well, and this being unwell is because of you.” A short letter, but a pure joy surrounded me the whole day. I understood, very clearly I understood, that I loved Rudra. When Rudra was kissing me in his Basabo room, he had possibly wanted to do something else. The fear of that something else shook me to my very roots. I was unable to make Rudra understand anything of all this.
Sheila came to Mymensingh for a visit from Chattagram, with her daughter Bini. On getting the news of Sheila’s arrival, Dada became agitated. Sheila had put up at her friend Neelam’s house. Selling their town house at Kachijhuli, Sheila’s mother, brother and sister, had gone to their village home in Gaffargaon. On her way to Gaffargaon, Sheila had stopped at Mymensingh. She was able to meet Neelam and see the town of her birth. But in doing so she encountered Dada. Sheila had wanted this meeting and so it happened. It was a stunning face-to-face confrontation. A meeting where, out of a hundred thoughts accumulated in the heart, not even one got utterance. It was a meeting where the eyes did not blink, and yet to hide the tears gathering in them, they glanced left and right in embarrassment. Dada invited Sheila home. He himself shopped for rahu fish, koi fish, prawns and cheetal fish. In case Sheila did not like to eat fish, he also bought goat meat, chicken and even pigeon meat. Ma spent the whole day cooking all this. Towards dusk, Sheila arrived at Aubokash with Bini. Sheila looked just the same. She still had her paan-leaf shaped face, the same eyes and the smile in those eyes. She had only developed some freckles on her cheeks. Sheila smiled and spoke to everyone. Patting her on the head Ma said, “Are you well, Sheila? Aha, I am seeing you after so long. What a pretty little daughter you have!” Sitting down for the meal, Sheila kept saying, “What was the need for so much!” Serving Sheila with fish and meat, Ma said “Noman wished to buy all this; you must eat.” After the meal, sending Bini to play in the verandah, she sat in Dada’s room and told him all about her intolerable life. Wiping his own tears with the palm of his hand, Dada wiped Sheila’s as well. After Sheila left, Dada lay on the bed sorrowing, his eyes staring out of the window. The breeze from outside dried his wet eyes. On Dada’s cheeks there were no freckle marks, only marks of dried-up tears. After spending many days in this sad mood, he finally announced that no one was to look for a bride for him. He had taken the decision not to marry. Everyone was dumbstruck. After a week he informed the dumbstruck family, that if he got married it would be to Sheila. He would marry Sheila! People were even more stunned. How could Dada possibly marry the already married and mother of a child, Sheila! Sheila was going to leave her husband soon. After which he would marry her and bring her home. So what if Bini was there, she was Sheila’s daughter after all. Dada continued to write long letters to Sheila. He left the letters with Neelam. Neelam put the letters in her own envelopes and sent them by post to Chattagram. One day, very early in the morning, Neelam came home, Dada had not slept the whole night, and was ready and dressed even before Neelam arrived. Both were going to Sheila’s at Chattagram. No one had the courage to restrain Dada from this path. In a distracted state, Dada left for Chattagram with Neelam.
After spending a week in Chattagram, Dada returned. This was a completely new Dada. He no more sat in front of open windows in a melancholy mood. In fact, his desire to marry anyone but Sheila increased beyond all measure. He never told anyone at home what exactly happened in Chattagram. Not only that, he did not utter the name Sheila, and carried on as though there was no one and nothing in this world called Sheila. If anyone wanted to know, he would show them photographs of himself taken sitting on rocks at the Potenga seaport, saying “Chattagram is not a bad place, quite nice actually.”
Dada’s friends were not only married, they had children, too. In fact, even Adubhai Farhad, who had to pass Engineering before marriage could be mentioned, too, had fulfilled the stipulation and was married. Dada had nothing more to pass. He had been working for years, and his friends were convinced that if he did not marry now, then he would never be able to do so for the rest of his life. Dada had seen girls every week, but there was a problem, the same problem with everyone, he didn’t like anyone. The new head of Fisons Company, Fazlul Karim was four years younger than Dada. New to the city, before he had even got acquainted with the customs and traditions of the new place he had got married. His wife was a classmate of Yasmin. After seeing Fazlul Karim’s bride, Dada returned and told Yasmin in a rebuking tone, “You never told me that there was such a beautiful girl in your class!”
“There are girls, but why will girls in my class marry an old man like you!”
“There is nothing wrong in being a few years younger.”
Dada unbuttoned his shirt and just sat on the sofa. He had even lost the capacity required to carry his body to his room and change into a lungi.
“The girls in Yasmin’s class are fifteen years younger than you Dada,” I told him.
“Then look for a girl in your class!”
“A medical student?”
“No, I can’t marry a medical student.”
“The girl will become a doctor in a few years. She will not be submissive.”
“Why do you want someone submissive?”
“Arrey, don’t I have to dominate her? It won’t do if my wife doesn’t obey me.”
“O, you of course have to call Doctors, ‘Sir.’ Anyway, medical students don’t marry representatives of medicine companies, so forget that dream.”
“Medical is in any case out. Beautiful girls do not study medicine.”
For Dada, a girl was required who would obey
all his commands and restrictions. She should not be an MA, because Dada wasn’t
one. A girl more educated than Dada would be problematic. Dada asked me about
my old friends in school or in
“Wasn’t any one beautiful?”
I said, “Mamata was there, but she is already married.”
“There was another Mamata in your school, she stayed in Baghmara. A good student, very beautiful.”
“She too is married.”
“That’s the trouble. Beautiful girls get married while in school itself. Those who passed IA, BA, and are still unmarried, you will see, are the world’s ugliest to look at. Either their teeth are protruding, or their lips. Something or the other is protruding.”
Ma said, “Noman you have seen so many good girls, and yet you didn’t like any of them, heaven only knows finally what you are fated to end up with.”
At the mention of fate, Dada’s enthusiasm returned a little. Changing out of his shirt and pant into a lungi, he sat in the verandah scratching himself. “If Allah so wills, that I don’t get a beautiful girl, I will not marry. It is better to stay unmarried than to marry an ugly girl.”
“I went and saw Seboni. What a pretty girl! And you didn’t like her. The girl was very religious, namazi, and practiced purdah. She was aware of customs and manners, and was BA pass.”
“Too religious, namazi, is not very good, Ma,” Dada replied laughingly.
“It is good he didn’t marry that Seboni. I’m fed up with Ma’s burkha. There would be no end of trouble with two burkhawalis in the same house,” I commented sharply.
Ma scolded, “Speak with care, Nasreen.”
Ma’s rebuke did not reach my ears. That was because I was reflecting on the faces of the girls who studied with me in Muminunissa, to see which one was beautiful. I murmured, “A beautiful girl studied in the arts section in Muminunissa college. She was a friend of Nafisa.”
“Nafisa studied with me even at Adarsh, and at Muminunissa.”
“That Nafisa! Oof a fat lump! Your friends are all of a kind! As it is you made a friend of Chandana Chakma, blunt-nosed Chakma. When I see your choice … I don’t know what to say.”
Nafisa was known to Dada. She had come to our
house. Her elder brother had studied with Dada in the same college and class at
sometime. Now a solemn man, he worked somewhere in
“Nafisa has joined Medical.”
“Well, who’s the beautiful girl?”
“Her name is Haseena. She studied Arts, at Muminunissa. I haven’t talked to her much. She was a good friend of Nafisa.”
Dada decided he would see this girl.
I got a photo of Haseena from Nafisa, and showed it to Dada. Dada said he would go to see this girl. Bas, arrangements were made to see the girl. Dada returned from seeing her and said, “She’ll do.”
“What do you mean by ‘she’ll do’? Will you marry her?”
“She’s nothing much to look at, but I can marry her.”
To hear Dada saying “I can marry” surprised us, but also filled us with joy. For years we had suffered along with Dada and his procrastination, if not like the burdened father of the bride, but definitely like the burdened relatives of the groom. On hearing about Dada’s choice, Baba asked, “What does the bride’s father do? To what status does the household belong? What do the brothers do? Without knowing all this how can you jump into a marriage?”
Haseena stayed at her sister’s house while
she was studying. Her brother-in-law was the
Dada remained adamant, saying, “Let what is
in my fate happen!” He was going to marry only this girl. Ma would tell Baba day
and night. “You better agree. If Noman does not get married now, maybe he never
will in life.” After immense persuasion when Baba’s ‘No’ changed slightly to a
mild acceptance, Dada sat down to fix the wedding date. The wedding was to take
place on the 4th of December. He ran around shopping. He bought
whatever was needed to complete the decorations. For me he bought a yellow
sari, for Yasmin a blue one and for Geeta a green coloured Kataan sari, to wear for the wedding. For the Halud, turmeric paste ceremony, he bought us all yellow saris with
red borders. From the decorations on the winnowing tray made of bamboo strips,
used for the wedding rituals, to the saris, clothes cosmetics for the bride,
not just saris for the bride but for her mother, maternal and paternal
grandmothers etc., everything was bought. Of course, Baba was paying for
everything. All the expenses of the marriage ceremony had to be borne by Baba,
because he was the father of the groom. All the fancy purchases were from
Dada’s pocket. Wanting to make the world’s most beautiful invitation card for
the wedding reception, he got an artist to design a red velvet cloth card, with
not a letter but a poem written on it. The velvet cloth was to be placed in a
long, red, beautifully decorated and carved box. On both ends of the scroll
there were to be silver sticks with bells. The invitation poem also read like a
royal decree read in the courts of Kings and Badshahs. From Dada’s head emerged
many more crafts. He had decorated his room like a King’s palace. He had
already asked the best artist in town to decorate the wedding bedstead. The bed
was to be decorated with thousands of roses and chrysanthemums. A red carpet
was to be laid from the black gate right up to the room. Taking a hefty amount
from Baba, Dada had personally gone to
On the day of the Halud ceremony, we, that is Jhunu khala, Yasmin, Chhotda, Geeta and I went to the Arjunkhila village in Phulpur, and applied turmeric paste on Haseena’s body. We decorated the already decorated winnowing tray with a yellow sari for Haseena, and seven colours to apply on her face. Following the tray were thirty-two kinds of sweet packets. The next day was Dada’s Halud ceremony. Dada sat on a mat in the verandah. The relatives applied the paste to his face. Four people had to hold the corners of the mat and spread it out. As one of the four, just as I was enthusiastically holding one corner of the mat, Jhunu khala came running and snatched the corner from my hands saying, “You can’t hold it.”
“There’s a reason. I’ll tell you later.”
Leaving the mat, I went and sat gloomily in my room. Why couldn’t I hold the mat, was a question that would not leaving my mind. Jhunu khala later said, “You are having your menses that’s why.”
“Who said I’m having them? I am not.”
“O, I thought you were.”
“What if I were? Suppose I was having them!”
“The body is not clean and pure during that period. During a wedding ceremony, one must be very pure and clean before touching anything. During an auspicious event, inauspicious things are to be kept far away.”
“O, so that’s it!”
I called Ma and said, “Ma, is it true that if you have your menses, you can’t touch the Halud ceremony mat?”
Ma said, “It is best not to touch it with an impure body.”
“Why? What happens if you do touch it?”
Ma did not answer the question; she was too busy. Jhunu khala said, “Something evil and unlucky happens.” I had wanted to know what kind of evil, but had got no reply. The house at the back belonged to Jeebon During her wedding, I had seen Jeebon’s mother keeping paan and betelnuts under the mat. I had never understood why. I had watched the entire wedding ceremony of Jeebon. A mirror had been placed before the groom and he had been asked what he could see. In the mirror was Jeebon’s beautiful face. No words emerged from the groom’s mouth. Someone told him to say “Moon face.” It seems this was the normal ritual. I found all these rituals strange. I had gone to Dolly Pal’s sister’s wedding. There, around the fire, four banana trees had been planted. The bride and groom had to go around these seven times. On a fast the whole day, the tired girl was now going round and round. On Jeebon’s Halud ceremony day people played with colours. As soon as it started, I had run away and come home. All the running around and boisterousness affected my nerves. The same thing happened at Mahbooba’s sister’s Halud ceremony. There, a friend of the groom tried to put colour on me. I had leapt aside, and run out of the house. I kept thinking the main purpose of putting colour on someone was to touch their body. Mahbooba was shocked to see me leaving. I moved around with circumspection, I was rather scared of running, jumping and catching activities.
On Dada’s Halud ceremony, all the girls at home wore yellow saris. Whoever came home, also wore the same. Nani of course didn’t do so. In her usual white sari, she had applied Halud to Dada’s face, and blessing him with her hand on his head, had said, ‘I pray for your happiness.’ To Nani, happiness was a thing of immense value, to Ma as well. Chhotda was far away, but he was happy, and hence Ma was able to console her own sorrow at not having him close to her. The house was filled with Halud; Halud on the saris, sweets, in the festivities. Everyone from Nanibari came, everyone applied Halud on Dada’s body. People from Haseena’s house too came and put Halud on his cheeks and forehead. Dada was looking rather helpless. Haseena’s relatives had a hearty meal of pulao and meat and left. If they hadn’t been from his in-law’s family, Dada would surely have cursed the village folk as being very uncouth.
Then began the wedding festivities. In front of the black gate a beautiful entrance arch had been made with trees, leaves and flowers. Borrowing Baba’s friend’s car, Baba, we youngsters and Dada’s friends went to Arjunkhila. Even a brazen person like Dada, covered his face with a handkerchief and sat with a groom’s crown on his head, a white sherwani on his body, white pyjamas, and white Nagra, footwear. Sitting outside under a tent, he said ‘Qubool’, accepting his bride in front of the Kazi. Haseena, inside the room, said the same to the Kazi, ‘Qubool’. It was of course not seemly for girls, when asked whether they agreed to marry such and such man, son of such and such, for a sum of so many mohurs, to immediately say ‘Qubool’. They were supposed to cry and shed a few tears first. When they were tired with weeping, and had been pushed by their mother and aunts, they had to finally utter the word. Haseena did not take very much time to say ‘Qubool’. Haseena’s verbal acceptance signaled the completion of the wedding ceremony. Now it was time to take leave. Haseena’s mother handed over her daughter to Baba. I was watching all the rituals in astonishment. I had never before seen these wedding rituals at such close quarters. In a flower-bedecked car, Dada took his seat with his bride and on their either side were Yasmin and me. In the car behind, sat the rest of the groom’s party. Dada had already drawn out the blueprints of everything. According to the blueprint, we jumped out of the car and entered the house in order to liven up the function celebrating the entry of the bride and groom into the house. We had to shower flower petals from the trays on to the bridal couple. I stood at the edge of the red carpet, tray in hand, showering petals on the bridal couple. Baba was meanwhile looking for someone to officially welcome the bride. Ma was standing at the open door to perform the ritual. She had waited at home the whole day, for this very moment. Next to Ma were standing the wives of Baba’s friends. Pushing her away from the door with his elbows, Baba told her, “You move away, far away. Go on, move!” Baba then smiled meltingly at M.A. Kahhar’s younger brother Abdul Momin’s wife, and said, “Bhabi, sister-in-law, please come, please welcome my son and his bride.” Ma remained in the background, the rich Abdul Momin’s heavily ornamented-in-gold wife, stood at the entrance door and garlanded Dada and his red sari-covered, bent headed bride Haseena, welcoming them home. Jhunu khala stared in surprise and said, “Amazing, the mother did not welcome her son and his wife into the house! They were welcomed by someone else!” Jhunu khala disappeared from sight. Wearing the kataan sari bought by Dada, pushed behind the crowd of people at the function to welcome the bridal couple home, Ma stood murmuring her prayers to bless Dada and Dada’s wife with a happy married life.
In Dada’s decorated room, the bed was strewn with red rose petals, and on it was seated the bride in a red Benarsi sari. Dada paced from one room to another. Dada looked like the Dada of yore, but I thought he isn’t the old Dada; he is now a married Dada. On Dada’s lips there was now constantly a trembling, embarrassed smile. He sat swinging his legs on the sofa at night, when Baba in his usual manner said, “It is late; now go and sleep.” Dada was going to sleep in his room. Till even last night he had slept alone. Today there was someone else in his bed, someone whom he did not know, did not love. I kept wondering what the two would talk about! Two complete strangers! Purposely I eaves-dropped outside Dada’s door, to hear what was going on inside! Wondering, if Dada found some fault in his bride that very night, he would immediately come and sit on the sofa on that night itself. My curiosity troubled me so much I was unable to sleep till late at night.
In the morning, Dada came out first and behind him emerged Haseena. Dada looked shy, behind him Haseena laughed shamelessly. Everyone’s eyes were focused on their faces.
Chhotda asked, his eyes dancing, “Ki Boudi, did you take off your nose-ring at night?”
Haseena replied in her hoarse voice, “Nothing happened actually.”
I asked, “Why do you have to take off your nose-ring?”
Haseena poked me in the back and said, “You have to take it off on your wedding night.”
“Why do you have to?”
“Don’t you know?”
“No, I don’t!”
“When those things happen, it means you’ve taken off your nose-ring.”
“What are those things?”
Haseena laughed loudly.
I began to feel very stupid. Haseena very
easily became familiar with everyone. Even though Chhotda was much older, she
had merrily started calling him by his name. Even Geeta. Without any hesitation
she was addressing others as tumi. It
seems, because she was the elder Bou,
bride, so she had to treat everyone younger than Dada as younger to her. I
watched Haseena in astonishment. It didn’t seem to me that the girl I had seen
Anu’s Ma, the new maid, came to mop the floors with a bucket of water. I told her “Have you seen the new bride?”
“The bride has no flesh on her bones.”
That was true. Haseena’s body lacked any kind of fat, just like mine.
“And she did not even have a bath, or change her clothes in the morning.”
“Why, who has a bath with cold water on a winter morning!”
“Yes. As soon as you wake up from sleep in the morning, you should have a bath, wash your clothes, and then enter your room.”
“Why, can’t we have a bath in the afternoon? And can’t we choose not to wash our clothes?”
Anu’s Ma shook her head vigorously, and said with conviction, “No.”
Curiosity was eating me up. I told Haseena, “It seems you must have a bath, and soak your clothes.”
Haseena said, “You have to if those things happen.”
“What are those things?”
Haseena again laughed loudly. Once more I did not get to know what ‘those things’ were.
Although Haseena had studied at
ceremony was to take place two days later. Since morning Dada was playing
Bismillah Khan’s shehnai on the cassette recorder. As soon as one side
finished, he immediately came to flip the side, the shehnai played the whole
day. Handsome Dada was wearing an expensive suit and imported shoes, made in
After a month, Haseena came to me with a personal problem. The problem could not be told to anyone but me. What was the problem? This doctor-to-be lent her ears.
“I used to get something soon after the wedding, during sexual intercourse, I don’t get it anymore.”
My ears turned red at the sound of the word ‘intercourse’. Struggling to the best of my ability to bring back my ears to a nutty brown colour, I said “What did you get?”
“A sense of fulfillment.”
“You got it before, so why don’t you get it now?”
“That is what I want to know, why don’t I?”
“When there is intercourse, from behind the male organ, meaning the testes the coiled tube epididimis releases the sperm, which through the ‘vas difference’ travels over the bladder, and into the seminal vessicle gland behind it. In this gland it mixes with the seminal fluid and forms semen, the sperm then passes through the urethra.”
Taking a pen, I drew a picture on white paper showing the passage of the sperm in order to make Haseena understand. This is the testes, this is the seminal vessicle, vas difference, this is the urinary bladder, this the prostrate, then an arrow mark to point in the direction of the urethra.
Haseena’s hoarse voice heated up, “I understand all that, but I am talking of fulfillment, why don’t I get it!”
The pen in my hand moved shiftily, once at my cheek, then chin, once on my hair.
“Is there ejaculation?”
Sitting with her legs hanging from the bed, swinging them back and forth, she tried to reduce her harsh voice to a whisper, and couldn’t. Any sound coming out of her mouth was like the beat of a drum. So that no one could enter the room unexpectedly and hear this secret conversation, and so that less sound would be heard outside, I bolted the door from the inside.
“What is ejaculation?”
“What are you saying? You don’t know what is semen? The secretion from the male organ is called semen.”
“Yes, that happens.”
“Then I don’t see any difficulty.”
Haseena sighed in disappointment and left the room. Searching in my medical books, I tried to find an answer to Haseena’s question. After reading up everything I could find on sexual relations, I called her the next day to tender free medical advice. Haseena came running to pick up the advice. Sweeping aside all my shame, as though I was not Dada’s sister, or Haseena’s sister-in-law, only a doctor, I asked her, “Accha, does your husband get an erection?”
“Yes, he does. Why shouldn’t he!”
“Do you have vaginal secretions?”
“What does that mean?”
“It means does anything flow out of your vagina?”
“Yes, that happens.”
”Is there premature ejaculation? Meaning does the semen come out soon after erection?”
“No, no. Nothing like that happens. He takes a lot of time. In fact, more than earlier. But I don’t get satisfaction.”
“Do you have dysperinia?” Meaning do you have pain during copulation?”
“Do you have vaginismus? This can be due to too much muscle spasms. Or else hypothyroidism can cause sexual dysfunction.”
“I don’t know about that; everything is the same as before. It is only in these two last weeks that this problem has happened.”
“Listen, there is something called a hypothalamus, it is to be found between the brain and the lower part of the third ventricle. This hypothalamus is connected to the pituitary gland. Forget it, I will tell you in short. The gonadotropin releasing hormone comes from the hypothalamus and stimulates the pituitary gland into secreting the liutinising hormone and follicle stimulating hormone. The liutinising hormone also stimulates the ledig cell of the testes, and releases testosterone. On the other side, the follicle stimulating hormone stimulates the seminiferous tibiulus cell. This way sperm is developed. In the functioning of all these, if there is any abnormality, then sexual dysfunction will happen.”
“There is no dysfunction. All functions are fine.”
“If that is so, where’s the problem?”
“I am getting the right feelings during sex. But at one point, there is a feeling of fulfillment, that I don’t get.”
“What is the difference?”
“I get pleasure during sex. But at that time it is something else. Having sex and getting that is not the same.”
“Doesn’t your partner get it either, this fulfillment you are talking about?”
“Arrey, of course, he does.”
“If he gets it, why can’t you?”
“His getting it is not the same as my getting it.”
“Why shouldn’t it be the same? The whole thing is mutual.”
“I’m telling you, it isn’t the same.”
“This doesn’t make sense, why shouldn’t it be the same? Erection is happening and your vaginal secretions are normal. That means the hormonal activities are okay. There is no premature ejaculation. Then I can’t see any problem.”
“There is a problem. Somewhere there has to be one. Otherwise why am I not getting that fulfillment?”
It was not possible for me to search again in my books and find anything new.
Giving up hope, Haseena said, “Take me to a Gynaecologist.”
I took Haseena to my Gynaecology Professor’s personal chambers at Chorpara, where he saw patients. She spoke to the doctor, Anwarul Azim, on her own for a long time. She emerged with the smile of one who had found the solution to her problem.
I asked, “What did the doctor say?”
Haseena laughed, her toothy smile spread all across her face. Immersing herself into a pond of secrecy, she said, “You won’t understand.”
Post Mortem Report
A Bride on Paper
Rudra’s letters came regularly at Dalia
Jehan’s address sometimes from Mongla, sometimes from Mithekhali and sometimes
“I cannot make you understand how unbearable every moment is for me, without you. Without you my days become so wild and unrestrained, and you just don’t seem to want to understand that. I know there are a lot of problems. At this moment if I want you close, thousands of problems will arise. But later too these problems will not give us any rest. Therefore, if these problems have to be faced some day, then it is necessary to bring them to the surface and face them straight away. Problems cannot be solved by playing hide-and-seek. That is why I had wanted to meet Dada. I wanted to inform him that we have got married but you did not listen. Throwing my days and nights into unbridled disorder, you are living very happily. This indifferent happiness of yours strikes me with envy.
Dreams do not gather like clouds in the sky and come down as rain everyday. Without you days pass, as do nights. Without your touch this desolate field remains barren… I haven’t seen you for so long! I haven’t caressed your closed eyes for so long! Your eyes are very misty, very cloudy and so distant. When will I be able to breach that mist and touch you! When will I understand the meaning of the cloudiness! I become tired just waiting. There seems to be no end to the waiting. There is no loving touch, and days are lifeless! There is no loving touch, nights are cold and tiring! In this cold darkness when will you come with the heat of the sun? Today I do not feel good; the whole day my heart swelled with the pain of loneliness and silence. I cannot explain this suffering in any language. Heavy as the cloud laden skies, my sufferings are so very cool and silent! Today I do not feel good. Today my pain is cold and frosty.”
I tried to experience Rudra’s suffering.
But it was not possible for me to fulfill his wishes. Rudra, with his authority
as husband, demanded that I tell people at home that I was married. If I
couldn’t do that myself, I should get someone else to say it. That even this
was not possible, I told him repeatedly. There was no way I could get someone else
to announce that I had got married to a homeless, penniless poet. Rudra was
under the impression that once we told people at home, Baba would get us
married with great pomp and splendour, after which I would go away with Rudra
and set up my own household. Or, Rudra would live in our house and enjoy the
privileges of a son-in-law. If I was thrown out of my house, then I would stay
in the hostel and continue my studies. During holidays, I would go to Rudra in
Rudra came to Mymensingh to meet me. He
did not come on the set day. After waiting endlessly for him in the Press Club
canteen, I returned home disappointed. He could not always make it on the days
promised. However, somehow he always managed to come if not on the said day
then definitely on a day close to that date. Only tea and shingaras were available in the college canteen. Actually because
the canteen was exclusively for college students, initially people looked
askance at Rudra’s presence there, and now they looked with eyes wide open.
Rudra’s friendship with Assad and Anwar was also not viewed favourably. Apart
from Assad and Anwar being known as the bad students of the medical college,
they were also considered as goondas,
rowdies, and anything that went wrong in college was attributed to them. There
were rumours that they drank liquor as well. Seeing Rudra in the college
canteen one day, Assad came to talk. It seems both had studied in the same college,
same class. Bas, that was it. They
got together. The students avoided this terrible two as much as possible. If
they were seen approaching, the students, specially the girls, promptly changed
their paths. However, after the terrible two saw me with Rudra, they began to
pay me a lot of regard. They would come forward on seeing me saying, “Ki, Nasreen, how are you?” I too had to
smile and answer that I was well. Gradually I began to feel that these two held
no terror for me, even if they did for others. Even without Rudra I had sat and
drunk tea with them in the canteen. Maybe Assad’s wrist would be bandaged, or
Anwar’s forehead would be scarred, but I never felt they were bad people. In
fact I felt they were much more sincere and honest than a lot of others. Once
in a while they flexed their muscles and asked, “Let us know if anyone bothers
you, we are ready to break their noses.” Rudra’s sitting and chatting with
Assad and Anwar made the eyes of other students grow even bigger. Eating shingaras with tea in the afternoon did
not really fill our lunch-hungry stomachs. We had to leave at sometime. On the
way to and fro from college I had discovered the Press Club canteen on
“‘You are a busy person. I do not have the courage to ask you to write everyday.’ By saying this you are actually asking to free yourself from the compulsion to write everyday! That will not happen. However busy I may be, I will always have time to write to you. If you were with me, the time I should give you at night would be more than it takes to write a letter. However, since you are not close, I can write to you everyday, and I will. What is late night for you? Is night for you? That is merely evening time. If you don’t learn to stay up even this much at night, you will get into great trouble later! There will be nights flooded with sleeplessness, what will you do on those nights of high-tide? I have not said one word of untruth to Chandana, in fact I have hardly told her anything. Why, if I don’t talk, can’t you do so? If I don’t lift my face, can’t you? Is the responsibility for maintaining this relationship entirely mine? We have shared everything equally. Then why should this be mine only? ‘You sit with a glum face, with angry eyes, hence I hesitate to show my love.’ The question does not arise. Has your love ever been displayed? Love which has never been extended, how can it be curtailed? Why don’t I assuage your pride? When you call, don’t I come close? Even when you don’t speak, don’t I? Even when you don’t lift your face, don’t I lovingly raise it with my touch? Don’t I shower your unrepentant pair of eyes with my love? Then why can’t you? I still do not understand the language of pride. Is there any power in this world which can explain something to someone who chooses not to understand, and pretends she doesn’t know anything? Today is the 8th of Ashwin. We have known each other for three years and four days. Do you know how I feel? I feel I have known you for a thousand years. That we met a thousand years ago. I don’t remember when and how we met. I only remember that one sun burnt heart on a dark palm screen, had, wordlessly and silently come and written one word – I. As though from times immemorial, we were searching for each other. One day we met. And in that first meeting we recognized each other. No introduction was necessary. Both of us watched the pictures we had within us. Yes, this is the one. The person I have drawn in colours of pain. The person whose name I have written with my hearts’ blood. This is the one I have created out of silent suffering and empty dreams. Being wordless, we both came to each other and wrote one word in each other’s palm, ‘I’. Meaning I am the person you have created within yourself.”
Rudra kept telling me that the private
room impossible to find in Mymensingh could be found in
Finally the night came. In the drawing
room, Rudra introduced me as his wife to Huda and his wife Shahana. Huda’s
younger daughter stared in amazement at this ‘wife’ which was me. Although it
was not very late, Rudra said it was time to retire. Rudra took me to his room.
Taking off his shirt and pants, and wearing only a lungi, he switched off the
light. He then took me sitting stone-like on a chair, and lay me down on the
bed. I kept telling myself, “You have got married, when you marry, silly girl,
you have to sleep with your husband. You have to! Every girl does it. Shed your
inhibitions. “I tried desperately to overcome my modesty. Light from the lamp
post outside was streaming through the window, I tired to think of it as
moonlight. I loved Rudra, he was my husband. I was going to spend my first
night with my husband. Tonight let me not feel any kind of numbness. Even
though I kept telling myself throughout the day not to feel numb, I was still
unable to call Rudra by name or as tumi
even once in the whole day. Turning my back towards Rudra, I lay in a heap in
one corner, with my legs and hands all curled up. Rudra pulled that curled up
me close to him. Not me, only my body remained lifelessly in Rudra’s embrace.
My two hands remained stiffly crossed over my chest; I was unable to remove
them. Those two hands were pushed away by Rudra with all his physical strength.
I did not want to tremble, but even if I wanted to stop this inner trembling, I
was unable to stem the tremors spreading throughout my body. Rudra kissed me
deeply on my lips. I could feel my lips swelling up, becoming heavy. I didn’t
want to, but I could feel my two hands trying to push Rudra away. With one
hand, Rudra unbuttoned my blouse, and with the other, he held strongly my
pushing hands. Rudra sank his face into the unbuttoned blouse. His wet tongue
licked my two breasts, chewing and sucking them. In my disheveled sari, I
continued to suffer in Rudra’s embrace. Rudra was moving my legs apart with his
own two legs. The more my one leg tried to come close to the other, the more
Rudra used his entire strength against their coming together. Keep your legs in
the way your husband is telling you to keep them, girl, you must, that’s the
system, Rudra knows what he is doing; this is what husbands do, this is what
you have to do, I kept telling myself. I also tried to render powerless with
all my being, the instinctive resistance gathering strength within me, so that
I could keep lying numb. That is what I did. Forcibly closing my eyes, and
covering them with my hands, I pretended as though I was not there, that this
was not my body, as though I was sleeping at home in my room. Whatever was
happening here, this obscene incident that was taking place, did not involve me
at all, nothing was happening to my body or life, this was someone else, this
was someone else, this was someone else’s body, I was thinking. After this,
Rudra climbed up on top of my entire body. Now not just my eyes were closed; my
breath too almost stopped. The two legs of my numb body wanted to join
together. Rudra separated my two legs with his own and with something
additional, created pressure at my crotch. In my breathless state, I tried to
think of the pressure as a natural one created by my husband, but involuntarily
an agonized scream pierced through my thoughts and came out of my throat. Rudra
pressed my mouth shut with his two hands. He pressed my mouth, but the downward
pressure at the other end continued. I was groaning in terrible pain. Upward
pressure, downward pressure, my ability to take any kind of pressure,
disappeared completely. Rudra’s iron body, in spite of loving my body so much,
in spite of giving so many proofs, was unable to enter it. Through the night,
Rudra used every device, every normally tried methodology to enter, but every
time my inability to make him understand my agony, lead to my screams of “Mago” and “Babago” waking the night. Every time Rudra had to press shut my
mouth to stop the screams. But the screams had penetrated even the pressure.
When the frightening night was over, this stricken and fatigued person changed
her sari for a salwar-kameez and said, “I am going.” I wanted to take my
lowered face, lowered eyes, my defeated useless body far away. The night’s
diffidence, shame, fear and distaste gripped me even in the morning. At the
same time, there was guilt. Rudra appeared to be Rudra, not my husband. On the
Returning that morning to
“Jhunu khala does not stay in the Hall anymore,” said Chhotda. After her marriage, the husband and wife had rented a room in one of the University’s houses. This Chhotda knew.
“She was there yesterday.”
“She hasn’t given up her room yet, or what?”
“Hmm. Didn’t you go to meet your friend? Did you meet her?”
“What’s her name?”
“Nadira? Isn’t she that
“Didn’t you say one day that she had taken admission in Jehangirnagar?”
“Yesterday, she had come to meet Asma at Rokeya Hall. She stayed the night.”
“Which one is Asma? Isn’t she Hashimuddin’s daughter?”
“Does she study at
“Weren’t you supposed to pick up your certificate?”
“Yes. I will.”
To give my shaking voice a rest I went to my room without going into details and lay down thinking of the night which had been like a nightmare. The last night. Rudra said I was being dramatic. Was that a drama! Hurt pride made we weep silently. My whole body was paining, as though I had just returned from a tiger’s den. My crotch was in agony whenever I had to walk. I wasn’t even able to urinate without pain. My breasts felt like two mounds of stone. The red kiss-marks were throbbing, and tender to the touch. Ever since I signed the marriage papers, Rudra had been talking of spending one night together. He did not bite any less even before I signed the papers. He had always jumped on me to kiss me and touch my breasts, but I had managed to escape and save myself. Masood’s house had disallowed us, anticipating a tussle. Because of this ban he showed a lot of anger and offense with me. Why a night was so invaluable to Rudra was something I had not understood. I had told him often that all the nights of our life were yet to come, let’s wait for them. The pain of waiting did result in a kind of happiness as well. No, Rudra would not wait. There was no joy in waiting, he said. The more I said let’s love each other, the more Rudra would say let’s go to bed. Rudra behaved as hungrily as a beggar. He wanted it today. Just now. He had to have it right now or he couldn’t take it anymore. When he came to Mymensingh, he went mad wanting a private room. Knowing it was not possible for me to procure one he still took offense at why I hadn’t found one. Not just offense, he even showed his anger. He had to spend at least one night with me. One night had been spent, ultimately, a nightmarish night. I had never thought of my life in this way. I felt hurt, angry. I had wanted to throw Rudra away. But I had found my hands did not move to do so, as though I was handicapped. I had been forced to admit defeat only to this paper, to my signature, because signing on that paper had meant marriage! But I did love Rudra! I thought. My thoughts did not leave me in peace for a second.
I also thought of the lie I had told Chhotda. Chhotda may have thought that after meeting Jhunu khala, since I was meeting my old school friend after so long, our talk must have extended far into the night, and that perforce, I had spent the rest of the night in Jhunu khala’s old room, sleeping. What Chhotda had thought who knows, but he did not let me out of sight and did not allow me to meet any friends on my own. He took me personally to the Registrar’s Building and procured the certificate. And after two days he escorted me back to Mymensingh.
Rudra had said later that I did not have complete trust in him. I still had doubts in my mind. I was really hurt on hearing this. I told him it was because I trusted him, because I completely trusted him that I loved him. The most important thing required in love was trust. If there was even a thread of doubt in this trust, one could like, but not love. Rudra had written, “Am I such an unfortunate person, that I have to appropriate everything by force? I have to pay for everything I take? What little can be taken by force I have, what little to take is proper, I have. But what I am entitled to, what I alone should get, even if I never get it, I will never take it by force, I will not earn it. I never question trust and love. What I meant by complete trust was something else, there is no reason for you not to understand that.”
Almost a year and a half after this episode, Rudra wrote, “Beloved wife, do you know what has happened this time? Seeing you wearing a sari for the first time, I felt I was seeing you for the very first time today. As though you were someone else, a completely different person, a new human being. In the past long years I have liked different things about you, but this time is different. An entirely unknown kind of joy. I felt that our love was born only this time. As though all these days were only a rehearsal. Today we were performing on stage.”
In a year and a half, Rudra had visited Mymensingh at two or three month intervals. Because I did not address him, in anger he had written letters without addressing me for quite a few months. Our time had passed in the Press Club canteen. When we had to leave the canteen, we had searched for places here and there, where we could talk. As usual finding a place had proved beyond me. At Rudra’s request I went to meet him wearing a sari. I didn’t know how to wear a sari very well. Taking help from Yasmin I wore one of Ma’s saris and left the house saying I was going for a friend’s birthday. That day Rudra took advantage of some seclusion, and used the opportunity to kiss me twice or thrice, and touch my breasts. Back home, he had written that letter.
“You are laughing to yourself, aren’t you?
Actually, I really felt that finally our love affair had begun. As though all these days we had merely touched each other; today we could feel the heat of each other’s bodies. We could understand the beats of our hearts. Today it feels as though on no occasion earlier had we felt so satisfied. You are slowly becoming informal, and easier to read. I seem now to be able to recognize a strange world. All these days, I have been waiting for you to lose your inhibitions. You will now become more informal and natural. You will now grow more liberated. No one will have such a beautiful home of love as we will … you just watch. Now, love me a little please Laxmi, my good girl. No, no, don’t turn your face away. Look, look at my eyes. What is there to be so shy about? I am someone you have known for so long. These eyes, these brows, this forehead, this face and body you have touched so many times. So, why are you feeling shy? Kiss me. Come on – kiss me.
Little by little I will control myself. If, in this way you give me a little love, you will see I will become just what your heart desires. Or you will become mine. In reality, love must mean making two hearts one. I feel like standing on the roads and shouting out to everyone, ‘Listen you all, I have found the one I love; we have been able to become one.’ Stay good, my beloved. Stay well, my life. Love, love, love, Your Rudra.”
Aubokash had completely changed. Yasmin had passed her SSC and had secured a first class, ‘distinction’ in Chemistry. Thanks to the ‘distinction’, Yasmin was treated better at home than I was. Baba dreamt of making her a doctor. Baba had not objected to her joining Anandamohan either. Yasmin seemed to have suddenly grown up. She was no more the little child she had been. When we two sisters went out together, those who didn’t know Yasmin, assumed she was my elder sister. This was because she looked bigger than me. At whatever age I started wearing an odhna, though only outside, Yasmin had to start wearing one much earlier. As the shape of her chest changed and became awkward, she had like me, begun to walk with a hunch. After all, this was the price one paid for not wearing an odhna. Boxing her on her hunched back, Ma said “Stand straight. Go and wear your odhna, at least you can walk straight. Why are you ashamed to wear an odhna now that you are grown up?” Even though she looked older than me, when the question arose regarding who was the prettier of the two of us, the scales were tipped on my side. Yasmin privately suffered because of her poor looks and physically overdeveloped body. Yet if our eyes were compared, she would be a deer and I an elephant. Next to her thick black hair, mine was extremely fine. But Yasmin never stopped grumbling about her small nose, her small chin and her full lips. Within her a jealousy was born secretly. I did not feel any jealousy; instead I wanted to keep her away from all the temptations, mistakes and untruths of the world. I definitely didn’t want Yasmin to cause Baba the kind of sorrow that I was going to be responsible for. An imaginary butterfly alighted on my eyes and said Yasmin would study in medical college, and become a greater doctor than I would be. She would marry some handsome doctor boy like Habibullah. Maybe this would reduce Baba-Ma’s unhappiness to some extent. Yasmin’s jealousy pained and distressed me a lot. I noticed she was moving away from me. That Yasmin who had remained stuck to me, now attached herself to Dada’s wife. She went to college and the rest of the time she swam along with Dada’s wife in a spate of humour and mirth. If I tried to find out about her studies, she looked at me as though I was her worst enemy. Chhotda was not in Aubokash anymore. I did not need to hide from Baba for going to cultural functions with him or get Ma to reluctantly give her permission. Chhotda too had changed from being a spoilt, uneducated, prematurely married boy who would roam around aimlessly to some one different. He was no longer the bohemian. He was now given the big piri, a low stool, to sit on. He no longer kept up with what was happening in town and where, whether a play, dance or song was being performed. Dada was there, but as good as non-existent. Of all the people at home, Dada had changed the most. He did not bother himself with literature or culture anymore. When the topic of Shenjuti came up, he never again offered, “Go, I will get it printed.” He did not bother about anyone else in the household. He had no more interest in listening to songs, taking photographs, buying clothes and shoes for himself, or even applying expensive perfumes. He was now busy buying saris and jewellery for his wife. Very often he bought a sari and came home, showed us the sari, we admired it, saying it was very nice, and would suit his wife very well. Dada was also busy attending invitations for meals at the homes of his in-laws. Now guests at home were mostly Haseena’s sister, brother-in-law, brother, sister-in-law etc. He liked more to discuss the merits or otherwise of the various relatives. Who was nice, who not so, who spoke too much, who little, who was beautiful to look at, who wasn’t, who had the most wealth, who was poverty stricken. Haseena’s figure was like a bamboo pole. Ma would cook tasty dishes everyday and feed her. Almost every evening Haseena went out with Dada. The rest of the time she spent the afternoon sitting in the verandah, raw Halud, turmeric, paste applied to her face. She took long baths, ate five or six times a day, and slept. But still she was a novelty at home, and our enthusiasm did not wane, especially not Yasmin’s. Yasmin clung to Haseena, slept next to her a hand cupping Haseena’s breasts like a nursing baby. Seeing this I moved away in shame and standing at a distance told Haseena, “Don’t you have any shame?” She replied, “Once you are married, are you left with any?" Ma too was married, but she never left her breasts uncovered. Geeta too never did. Geeta, of course, had very small breasts, and had to stuff her brassieres with cotton wool. Since Haseena neither knew how to wear saris properly, or dress up nicely before going out, Yasmin made her wear her sari, something she had learnt to do, having often watched Geeta. She made up Haseena’s face; this too she had learnt from Geeta. Initially, I called Haseena by her name. She, however, was not pleased at this and ordered me to call her Boudi. Yasmin happily called her Boudi. She went with her Boudi and visited Boudi’s sister’s house, or brother’s house. When Boudi went to buy saris, Yasmin went with her to help her choose. If she had to buy shoes, Yasmin would tell Dada to buy the most expensive shoes in the market for her. It was not possible for me to call a college mate of mine Boudi. After Haseena objected to being called by her name, what happened to me was that I stopped calling her even Haseena. “Hey listen, Ayee Dada’s wife, listen to me,” was the way I made do. Dada disliked the name “Haseena” a lot. He dropped the Haseena from Haseena Mumtaz, and taking the Mum from Mumtaz, made Mum into Mumu, and began calling Haseena, Mumu. Dada now never thought of buying anything for Ma, or for Yasmin and me. When Id came, he bought the most expensive saris in the market for Haseena. After repeated requests to buy Ma a sari, he would, possibly just out of a sheer feeling of obligation , the night before Id, buy her a cheap cotton sari. Ma could detect in this gift, the lack of love he had for her earlier. We, too, could feel it. That he was not giving anything to Yasmin and me even out of the sheer propriety of things was also something we never questioned or complained about. This was because we thought that this was the system. Now that Dada had a wife, he would give her everything. Seeing his wife happy, made us happy. If she smiled, Dada smiled, too. We didn’t pick Dada’s pockets any more. After Chhotda left, Yasmin and I had, for a long time, taken up the task on our own steam. But now there was a wife guarding his room. Haseena didn’t like it if Dada spent even two paise on anyone else at home. Dada’s money, Dada’s belongings were considered by Haseena as her own. While removing the glassware bought by Dada from our collection, she remarked, “I have to remove mine and keep mine separate. These shouldn’t get used!” Anu’s mother went to keep the water bottles, in the fridge bought by Dada, as she had always done. Haseena now stopped her and said, “If you have to touch my fridge, you must first ask for my permission.” Then, wiping the fridge with her own hands, she added, “Actually a fridge should be handled by a single person. If so many people handle this fridge, then my fridge will stop working in a few days.” Hearing Haseena using the word ‘my’ made me feel as though there were two groups of people in the house. In one group were Baba, Ma, me and Yasmin, and in the other, Dada and Haseena. Riazzuddin’s son, Joynal, stayed in the tin shed, and studied in the town school. Whenever Haseena saw Joynal she would say, “Ayee boy, get me a glass of water” or “Ayee boy, run and get me a rickshaw.” Joynal brought water for her. Ran to call her a rickshaw. Haseena would be wearing a sari, and Joynal may have been close by. “Ayee boy, just polish my shoes, will you?” Joynal, sitting at her feet, would wipe Haseena’s shoes with a soft cloth. Ma said one day, “Don’t order Joynal around like this, Bouma. Joynal is not a servant of the house. He is Noman’s own first cousin, his Chacha’s son.” Haseena, in her grating voice, said, “If I don’t tell him, whom do I ask? The one maid there is, is always in the kitchen. She is never available.”
“Anu’s mother works the whole day.”
“What work does she do the whole day that she has no time to do anything for me?”
“Ask Anu’s Ma for whatever you want. Has she ever said she won’t do what you ask her to do?”
After this, Haseena got a maid from Arjunkhila, called Phulera. She was to wipe her shoes, draw her bath water, keep her towel and soap in the bathroom before she entered, and if Haseena was lying down she was to pick lice from her hair. Even though it was one house and everyone’s food was cooked on one stove, gradually two households began to emerge. We all began to notice that Haseena’s voice was not only coarse, it was also very loud. In this house only Baba’s voice had the authority to rise to this level.
able to tolerate Haseena’s sitting idle any longer Baba got her admitted to the
Life was changing. At one time I used to eat my meals sitting on a piri next to the stove. Later on, there was a mat on the bedroom floor, then an ordinary table in the dining room. Gradually the table became bigger, more sleek, and the chair backs rose higher than peoples’ heads. The cane sofas were replaced by wooden ones. The hurricane lights changed to electric lights, the hand fans to electric ones, the tin plates to bone china ones. I used to grind coal into powder and brush my teeth, picking up the coal powder on my fingers, then with the twigs of the neem tree, softening the edges of the twigs by crushing them with my teeth, then came toothpaste, Colgate from the Tibbot company. Now instead of old sari pieces or soft rags, I was using cotton pads bought from the market during my menstrual periods. During the Id-ul-Azha, a whole cow was sacrificed. All this meat was boiled with salt and halud and kept in big vessels. Whenever the meat needed to be cooked, the boiled meat pieces were sautéed in oil and spices, and a lot of it was put in the sun to be preserved as dried and seasoned meat. The meat pieces were pierced in the center and strung up on lines in the sun. Just before dusk, just like dried clothes were collected from lines, the sun dried meat too was collected. The next morning they were put in the sun again. With the arrival of the fridge, this ritual was abandoned. Now the meat was not boiled with salt and turmeric and kept, nor was dried meat prepared that much, the meat now went into the freezer compartment of the refrigerator. Various devices had come into the house. Earlier the radio was the only thing we could rely on, now there was the television, first black and white, then colour. Earlier there was only the audio player, now there was both audio and visual. One did not have to go outside the home to see theatre or cinema; one could sit at home and watch. Even songs and dances were available at the press of a button. To watch any major cricket or football match one did not have to run to the play grounds, that too was available at the press of a button. Even to take a photograph, it was not necessary to go to a studio. By purchasing a camera, one could take as many photographs, in as many poses, as one wanted. Life had changed a lot. There were many things which were not the same as before. As I moved on I did not look back too much, as though the life I had left behind was a forgettable one. Only one thing remained the same as before. Rice was cooked at home thrice a day, it still was. Collecting the leaves and twigs falling in the courtyard the earthen chullah had to be lit. The fire would repeatedly get extinguished. Every time it did, you had to blow air into it, and with every puff, smoke would make your eyes water, your hair float and Ma would totally disappear in the cloud of smoke. Once the fire was lit the smoke would float away, and once it had cleared, Ma could be seen again, black grime on her cheeks, hands and forehead. Seeing this begrimed horrible Ma did not surprise anyone at home. Ma was this way in any case, that’s how everyone had seen her all along. Next to the chullah, this soot covered Ma would cook. Before anyone could feel hungry she would serve a plate to each one. That was why she was Ma. Life was changing, but Ma’s earthen chullah did not. Since my birth, I had watched Ma sitting next to the chullah, enkindling the dried leaves and blowing into the stove to light the fire. There was no change in this.
informed us of Geeta’s date of delivery, and asked that Ma should reach
“Then who will look after the baby?” Chhotda asked.
In an indifferent manner, Geeta said, “How do I know! He’s your baby, you should know!”
Chhotda sat with a gloomy face in the room. If Geeta went off to work, then who would the baby stay with?
“Keep a maid. Let her look after the baby”, Geeta’s voice was detached.
Chhotda sat by Geeta’s head and stroked her hair and sang Geeta, Geeta, Geeta, O, Geeta the whole afternoon. Then he put his mouth close to her ears and whispered. For a long time he tried to turn her face and kiss her. In the evening Geeta wore a sari, and went out with Chhotda. They came back with a sari for Ma. Putting the sari in Ma’s hands, she said, “You have worked a lot for your son, take this sari.”
Chhotda said, “Geeta has chosen the sari. It is the best Tangail sari.”
Ma took the sari in her hands and said, “Yes, it is a very nice sari,” and kept it on the bed. Moving away the straggly hair on her forehead, Ma said, “Baba Kamaal, can you put me into the bus tomorrow?”
“Where will you go?”
“If you go to Mymensingh, who will the baby stay with? Geeta will be going to office from tomorrow.”
Drooping with exhaustion, Ma said in a broken voice, “I have stayed for a long time. Let me go now.”
“Then take the baby with you, Ma. Take him to Mymensingh.”
Ma was shocked to hear the proposal. How could this be done? For how long was this going to be! Neither Chhotda nor Geeta specified the time period. Geeta was clear – she was going to work, come what may, she was not going to give up her work for the baby. Now, if Ma stayed in this house and looked after the baby, fine, otherwise let her take him to Mymensingh and do so.
The next day Ma returned to Mymensingh with the baby in her arms. A smile appeared on Geeta’s gloomy face.
returned to Aubokash with the baby,
no one noticed her tired face after all the sleepless nights. Everyone only
noticed the lovely baby adorned with a black dot to ward off the evil eye. Such
a small baby had never lived in Aubokash.
Yasmin and I jumped to take the baby in our laps. One could not easily touch
the baby. One had to bathe and wear clean clothes, only then could one carry
the baby. This baby was not fated to be brought up in the dust and slush like
us. Everything he used, even the toys which he had in advance of his age, were
bought from abroad. Chhotda puffing up his chest, nose and whatever else he
could, added, “I get the Johnson’s baby lotion and powder from
The baby was given Baba’s room, Baba’s bed. Baba placed another cot for himself in the corner of the room. The windows of the room were opened. Even if Baba’s body didn’t require it, the baby required light and air. Baba’s room was washed, cleaned and shining. On a table Ma arranged all paraphernalia required to feed the baby. A juicer to squeeze oranges, a mixer to liquidate greens, vegetables, fish and meat, a tin of imported milk powder, along with other cereals from abroad, an imported feeder, bowl and spoon. The baby’s clothes and toys were put into the cupboard. The baby required to be fed chicken soup everyday. Baba bought twelve chicks and sent them across. For his first grandson, Baba became the fabled ‘Benevolent Harish Chandra.’
beloved Mumu looked at all the imported baby things with wide eyes. Ma was not
enthusiastic about imported things. Ma had no idea how far one had to go to
reach abroad. Foreign countries maybe some major places, which were way across
seven seas and thirteen rivers. But Ma kept aside the imported silk clothes,
made the baby wear local cotton ones. In a warm country, was there anything as
comfortable as cotton! Removing all the Ceralac, Feralac and all other
varieties of imported powdered foods, Ma herself cooked fresh tomatoes,
carrots, greens into a soft mass and fed the child. Throwing away the packets
of fruit juices, she squeezed juice out of fresh fruits bought in the market,
for the baby. Ma believed that powdered milk caused stomach upsets in babies.
She personally went to the other bank of the
“The pet name is Suhrid, and the proper name Alimul Reza.”
“What? Alimul Reza?” Yasmin and I looked at each other’s faces. My lips, nose and eyebrows became distorted.
“What is this Alimul Reza? What kind of a name is this? Does anyone have Arabic names nowadays?”
Baba in a hard voice said, “They do.”
I had hoped for a lovely Bengali name. I had wanted to name him Hriday, Hriday Samudra, Heart of the Sea. My wishes had no value especially in such an important field as name keeping. Ma said, “He got this Alimul Reza name from some Peer.”
“Razia Begum’s Peer. He got the tabeez for your head also from her.”
After about two months, Chhotda and Geeta came to
see Suhrid. Leaving a whole pile of imported things, and taking various snaps
carrying the baby in different poses, they left for
“Let’s play cards,” said Chhotda pulling me with one hand and Geeta with the other, towards the bedroom.
While we were playing cards in this room, Ma was putting Suhrid to sleep in the other, singing lullabies. He was unable to sleep, and was restless, with the onset of a fever. Ma was putting cold compresses on him. Hearing about the fever, Yasmin and I ran out abandoning the game. A message was sent to Baba. He came and checked Suhrid’s fever. He went back speedily to the Pharmacy to get the medicines. I told Geeta and Chhotda, “Suhrid’s body is burning with fever.” Wrinkling her forehead, Geeta asked, “How did he get this fever? Did you feed him something stale?”
“Stale? Are you mad? Ma washes the feeding bottles seven times in boiling water.”
Raising her eyes to her forehead, Geeta asked in a tone which implied that she was hearing for the first time that anything could be washed seven times, “She washes them seven times?” Ma actually did so. She was so scared the baby would get a stomach upset or fever. Suhrid very easily fell sick.
“Go, why don’t you go to Suhrid for a while? Go, and see him,” I told Geeta. Having no alternative, Geeta left the cards and went to sit by Suhrid. But within two minutes, she lay down, and went to sleep. Finally she had to come to another bed and sleep. Ma stayed awake the whole night with the feverish Suhrid.
After Suhrid had spent three months at Aubokash, Haseena had to go to the hospital. She was to have a baby. Dada’s friends were doctors and Baba’s friends were professors, so it was very convenient. After the delivery, Dada fed all the doctors not just sweets, but Biryani in the hospital cabin, for the mouse-like little boy. I took my classmates and went and ate the Biryani. The mouse was brought back to Aubokash. Haseena made arrangements for her own baby to be cared for in exactly the same away as Suhrid was taken care of. A maid was brought from Arjunkhila to look after the baby. The new maid carried the baby around, and washed the nappies and clothes of the new baby. There were now four maids in the house. Nargis and Jharna were there for Suhrid and the new baby Shubho. To do the work for the elders, the cooking, the washing, the cleaning of the house there was Anu’s Ma and Sufi. Another called Phulera, brought from Arjunkhila, was there to attend to Haseena’s personal chores. One day Baba sat down to count the maids. After finishing his count he said, “One man has to provide meals for so many people! Get rid of them.”
“Who is your father asking to get rid of? Is it Jharna?” Haseena asked insinuatingly.
Dada said, “He did not mean Jharna.”
“Before Jharna came, no head count was done!”
“Baba does a head count quite often.”
“Did he count after Nargis joined?”
“That’s a point! He didn’t.”
“Try to understand the ways of this world a little.”
“You think I don’t understand?”
“No, you certainly don’t. If you did, you could have said something. Suhrid, it appears is their only grandson. What percentage of what is done for Suhrid is done for Shubho? Have you ever bothered to calculate?”
Dada kept quiet. Maybe he was trying to gauge the ways of this world.
The rough voice was rising in pitch. “Go, the baby’s powder is required, go get it.”
“What are you saying Mumu? I just got powder yesterday!”
“It’s rubbish. It makes the face become rough. Get Johnson’s.”
“The Johnson’s baby powder available in the market is a duplicate. They stuff the containers with flour. The Tibbot powder is good.”
“This is really surprising! Am I going to use local stuff for Shubho now? Are you absolutely mad? Don’t you see what care is being given to another child before your very eyes? Are any local products being used in that room?”
“If I went abroad like Kamaal, maybe I too could have got foreign goods like him. The other day I bought Poison scent, Made in France, but the dirty fellows, had filled the bottle with Noorani Attar. Do you know what these hawkers who buy empty bottles do? They take the bottles, and sell them at Jinjirae. You know, everything available at Jinjirae is imitation.”
Giving Haseena a half-used container of Johnson’s Baby powder, Ma said, “My four children have grown up on local talcum powders, people in the locality seeing their skins have asked what do I apply that they have such beautiful complexions.”
Haseena did not take the talc. There was no container that was full. Ma promised to ask Chhotda the next time he came, to get foreign talc for Shubho. On the day of the powder incident, Yasmin returned from college and finding Jharna near by said, “Get me a glass of water, will you Jharna?”
Jharna walked around here and there, but did not get the water.
“Kire, aren’t you getting some water?”
“I am employed for the baby’s work. Mami has asked me not to do any other work. You have Nargis, tell her.”
For the elders, instead of two maids there was now only one. This had not happened because of Baba’s making a noise about reducing the staff. Anu’s Ma had left on her own. This kind of disappearance was not a very uncommon event. If one disappeared, another appeared. Now Nargis, after finishing the baby’s work, had to do the elders’ work as well. From dawn to dusk Nargis was mopping the floors. She was only thirteen years of age. Her lips and skin were dry as wood, a horrid stink emanated from her body. Leaving the mopping, ‘horrid stink’ ran to the tap, filled a glass of water and gave it to Yasmin. ‘Horrid stink’ returned to the room.
“Kire, Nargis, don’t you have a bath?”
Any questions about food or bathing made her bend her head in shame.
“Kire, have you eaten, Nargis?”
“I’ll just finish mopping the rooms and go to eat.”
“It is almost dusk, haven’t you had your lunch as yet?”
“Aren’t you hungry?” I asked.
“No, I’m not. I have eaten!”
‘When did you eat?”
“I had breakfast in the morning.”
“Do you every day have your lunch in the evening?”
“No, no. What are you saying, Apa? I washed the clothes. That’s why I’ve got a little late today.”
My eyes filled with sympathy, my mind became distressed.
My anger only served to increase the heat which was making Ma sweat, who was sitting next to the stove, boiling the milk.
“Don’t you even give Nargis time to bathe and eat?”
Ma exploded, saying, “Are you keeping track of when she eats and has a bath! She is such a slow girl; she takes ten minutes to wash one bottle. She herself said she would eat after mopping the floors.”
That evening Nargis never managed to eat her meal. By the time she did it was at night. I felt pity for the girl. The very next morning she was rolling out rotis in the kitchen. As soon as she heard my call for tea, she came and stood before me with a cup. I jumped up in shock when I saw her face, which was covered with red boils.
“Kire what’s wrong with you, do you have measles?”
“No, nothing is wrong!”
“What are all these marks on your face?”
“Nothing,” said Nargis, laughing and covering her face with her hands.
Removing her hands, I examined the marks on her face. There were a few hundred eruptions on the face, making it look hideous. There were boils on her arms and legs as well.
“You have measles.”
“No, why should I get measles? What are you saying, Apa? Just a couple of mosquito bites.”
“Mosquitoes have bitten you in this way?”
Ma had come to give Suhrid’s soiled sheets to Nargis. She had to go and wash them at the taps. Sufi would now roll out the rotis.
“Can’t you give Nargis a mosquito net, Ma? Her face is in a terrible shape!”
“She has a net. Why doesn’t she use it?” said Ma in an unconcerned voice.
“I do hang up the net. The mosquitoes enter through the one or two holes in it. Nothing much,” Nargis kept her cheeks hidden, her two hands piled with clothes.
“I have told her to mend the torn net, but she’s the laziest of the lazy,” said Ma.
That night when Nargis had laid out a torn kantha on which to lie down, it was very late. I pulled her up and said, “Go and hang the net and sleep.” Sleepy-eyed, she went to the kitchen and got the net from a shelf. Nargis started putting up the torn net, one loop on a chair, another on a bolt. I counted and found ninety-eight holes in the net. There was no difference between using such a net and not using one at all.
There were more new pimples on Nargis’ face. The next day I again took up the question of the net.
Ma was feeding Suhrid milk, while he was lying on her legs. Going close, I told her while fondling Suhrid’s cheeks, “Ma, are there no other nets except that torn one? Have you seen Nargis’ face?”
“Wouldn’t I have given another net if there had been one? Does your father buy anything? I manage by mending all the torn mosquito nets. If I were to say the maid needs a net, he would turn around and say awful things to me. He has bought a new mosquito net for Suhrid’s bed. Otherwise I would have had to make do with a torn one.”
“Then tell him I need a new net for my bed. Then I will use the new one, and give the old one to the maids. Even Sufi is being bitten by mosquitoes.”
“You don’t know your father! He will never buy anything. He sends all his money away. Even yesterday Riazzuddin came and took money.”
Suhrid suddenly burped, and vomited.
Ma’s temper flared. “This boy can’t stomach anything, whatever I feed him he vomits it out.”
Ma threw the bottle away. Nargis brought some soup and said softly, “Khala, will you give him soup now?”
“Throw it away. What is the point of feeding him? He throws up everything.”
I knew that whatever Ma might say, she would again enthusiastically start feeding either soup or milk to the baby. Again he would throw up, and again she would feed him. In Ma’s extreme care the boy was growing nice and roly-poly.
Chhotda brought Geeta to see ‘roly-poly’ one day. After roaming all over town the whole day and visiting Peonpara, he returned home in the evening and happily said, “We will have to leave tomorrow. I have a flight day after.”
“As soon as you come, you say you are leaving,” said Ma. “You didn’t even take Suhrid in your lap once.”
“He doesn’t come to me, how can I pet him?”
Suhrid did not like going to anyone except Ma, Baba, Yasmin and me. He turned his face away, even when his own parents visited. Even if Chhotda didn’t mind this, Geeta did.
“My own son and he doesn’t even look at me!”
Ma laughed and said, “He sees us before his eyes all the time, that’s why. You must come more frequently. Then he will recognise you.”
In the morning, Ma ran to the kitchen to make breakfast for Chhotda – goat meat and paranthas fried in ghee. Whenever Chhotda and all visited, fancy food was cooked. The Chhotda whom Baba had wanted to disinherit, was now lovingly made to sit next to him and fondly called, “My Baba, my son.” The Chhotda who used to steal Dada’s clothes and wear them, now wore clothes which made Dada’s eyes shine. He would say, “Bah! That’s a lovely shirt! Get me a shirt like this, will you!” The Chhotda who used to beg one or two takas from me, now said “Kire, what news of your Shenjuti!”
“What news can there be! No money to print it.”
your manuscript. I will get it printed from
the manuscript of Shenjuti and went
Chhotda upheld the pride of my trust in him. He got Shenjuti printed and brought it back. Of course it took all of three months for it to reach me. Chhotda said, “I’ve omitted that bearded fellow’s poetry.”
Seeing Shenjuti minus Rudra’s poems made me
very unhappy. My first job was to send ten copies to Rudra’s address. On
receipt, he asked for twenty-five more copies. After the twenty-five, he asked
for more. Shenjuti was distributed in
Mymensingh. Giving it for sale in the magazine shop on
Nana was coming over almost every afternoon. Sitting on a chair in the verandah, he stared at the sun in the courtyard. He continued to stare till Ma came and called him to sit on a stool either in the sun in the verandah or courtyard. She then proceeded to scrub and bathe his fair body. Ma was exhausted with looking after the household and Suhrid. In spite of that, whenever Nana came she would make him sit in the sun and scrub and bathe him, dress him in a washed lungi of Baba’s and make him lie down. Nana would go to sleep like a baby. When he woke up, Ma would bring rice for him to eat, followed by payesh, rice pudding in milk. While Nana was partaking of his payesh, Baba would return. Embarrassed, Ma would say, “Bajaan hardly ever comes home, and even when he does, he does not eat anything, I have finally persuaded him to take some payesh.”
In a cold voice Baba would say, “You are feeding payesh to your father who has diabetes.”
“Nothing will happen if he eats a little. Bajaan loves sweets.”
I would be immersed in my details. When I rose up from them and went to dispose of the sherbet Ma gave me in the toilet, I would find Ma sitting holding on to the door.
“Ki? Have you passed blood due to piles?”
With her bloodless body Ma would rise to begin sterilizing Suhrid’s feeding bottles in boiling water. Filling the bottle with milk, Ma would feed him, while telling him the story of a handsome prince. Once he finished the milk, she would put him to sleep singing a lullaby about a prince exiled to a forest. At night, when Baba returned she would say, “Isn’t there any treatment for piles? Whatever blood I have in my body, is almost all gone!”
Baba would not reply. Once he would peep into my room to check whether I was studying the veins and arteries or not, or was I either writing poetry or love letters!
In a plaintive voice Ma would keep saying, “I should be drinking some milk. At least one banana a day. One egg. If I pass so much blood, there will be nothing left in me. Should I ask Bhagi’s mother to deliver a quarter kilo of milk for me?”
Baba never replied to any of this.
Suhrid had learnt to crawl. He had learnt to play with all the variety of toys surrounding him. At every stage of Suhrid’s progress, Yasmin and I were overjoyed. We snatched him from each other’s arms, to take him out, to rock him around. We took Suhrid in our laps and sat in the swing on the verandah to swing with him.
Dada sat in the verandah and sang with full-throated ease, ‘A house of bones is joined together by a covering of skin.’ He had learnt this song from a beggar singing on the streets of Tangail.
Haseena came out of her room and barked, “Singing won’t do! Go get chicken for Shubho.”
Dada stopped singing and asked, “Isn’t there any chicken?”
“No, there isn’t. There is no chicken for Shubho.”
Nothing will happen, Mumu, if he doesn’t eat chicken for one day.”
Haseena’s voice rose, the harshness of her tone like a ravens’, “Nothing will happen, meaning? There is another baby in the house, don’t you see with what care he is being brought up! Why is there so much neglect regarding your child! Is there only one grandson? Isn’t Shubho a grandson?”
“Why do you say there is no chicken? There they are walking about in the courtyard.”
Haseena’s eyes spewed sparks of fire. “There are no baby-chicks.”
“See there, Mumu, there is the cage; there are the baby-chicks. Tell them to slaughter one.”
“Those are for Suhrid, you know that very well. Baba hasn’t bought any chicken for your son, has he?”
Hearing the noise, Ma came and poked her nose. ”Bouma, what is this you are saying? Your father-in-law always buys chicken for both the babies. Isn’t soup always made of two chickens? One for Suhrid, and one for Shubho. Your father-in-law buys milk, eggs and everything else for both the babies. Shubho and Suhrid are both his grandsons.”
“Both are grandsons; that even I know. But everyone’s attention is focused only on one grandson. Who turns to look at Shubho?” Haseena harshly retorted.
“What do you mean by ‘turns to look’? You are talking such nonsense. Suhrid’s parents are not here. That is why he has to be looked after. Shubho has his parents with him.”
Haseena went to her room and changed her sari. “I am going to Parveen Apa’s house. Ma, look after Shubho, will you?” Saying which, she strutted out without glancing back once. Ma was then left holding Suhrid in one arm and Shubho in the other.
Dada sang the rest of the song.
often visited her so-called cousin, who was actually her own sister, Parveen.
She went to Kusum’s house as well. Kusum had left her own husband, the Railway
School Headmaster, and had married a married man called Karim, who also had
children. Karim looked a lot like a watermelon, all round. So did Kusum. This
round watermelon visited this house very often after Dada’s wedding, and said,
“Do come, you all can visit the Botanical Gardens.” Karim was in a way in
charge of looking after the Botanical Gardens of the
When Haseena returned, Ma handed over Shubho to his mother. Then dressing Suhrid up, Ma took him to Nanibari. She had not been there in a long time. My room was alongside the verandah. Since even whispers in the verandah were audible to me, I could clearly hear Yasmin walking on the verandah and saying, “Kire, Shubho’s soiled potty is lying in the verandah since morning, why doesn’t someone remove it!”
Haseena, who was sitting with her feet up in a chair on the verandah, said, “Why don’t you remove it?”
“What did you say?”
“I said, why don’t you remove it? Since you can see that it is lying around.”
“Why should I remove it?”
“Don’t you remove Suhrid’s pot?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Then why can’t you remove Shubho’s pot?”
“Why should I remove Shubho’s pot?”
“Why, can’t you remove Shubho’s pot?”
“No, I can’t.”
“You think you can say you can’t? You will have to.”
“Why will I have to? Doesn’t Shubho have a maid? What is Jharna doing?”
“Suhrid too has Nargis. Yet you all still remove Suhrid’s pot. You all are Suhrid’s servants.”
“Yes, servants. We are Suhrid’s servants, good for us.”
“You will be Shubho’s servants as well.”
“Why should we?”
“You will have to.”
“Just because you say so?”
“Yes, just because I say so.”
“What did you say?”
“Exactly what I said.”
“Say it again.”
“If you can eat Suhrid’s potty, you have to eat Shubho’s as well.”
Yasmin now kicked Shubho’s potty into the courtyard. Haseena flew at her and pulling Yasmin’s hair said, “Go pick up the pot.” Yasmin too giving a yank to Haseena’s hair, said, “You pick it up.”
Hearing the noise, I left my veins and arteries and came and stood at the door. Seeing the mutual hair pulling, I insinuated between them and tried to free Yasmin. The three of us struggled with each other. From somewhere, in the middle of all this, a suited-booted Dada flew in and descended over Yasmin and me. Holding Yasmin’s hair strongly by the fist, he pulled her all the way to the courtyard and threw her down in the center where the soiled pot was lying upturned. Haseena ran towards the flattened Yasmin, and scratching her face and chest, she began to thrash her on her back. Yasmin, lying face down on the macadam, was keener to throw Haseena on the pot than free herself. Haseena pushed her face into the pot with both hands. Moving away her face, Yasmin caught hold of Haseena’s leg with her claws, wanting to pull her down, but in vain. Dada now kicked Yasmin on her shoulders, continuously kicked her shoulders, back, buttocks and thighs. Yasmin’s hands jerked off Haseena’s legs. Haseena held the pot over Yasmin’s face, who had wound herself into a coil in face of the kicking. Her face was smeared with Shubho’s excrement. I stood open-mouthed with shock at this cruel incident. I couldn’t believe this was our own Dada! In the meanwhile, from Arogya Bitaan, Baba had sent ten chickens separately for Shubho with Salaam. Standing on the verandah, Salaam too looked at this inhuman scene absolutely thunderstruck. He saw. But it became impossible for me to keep standing open-mouthed and watch. I ran to free Yasmin, I couldn’t. I too had boxes raining down on my back, and had my hair severely pulled. Dada and Haseena were then kicking Yasmin hard all over her body. Yasmin did not cry. Her jaw-bone became stronger by the minute. Helpless, I continued to sit next to Yasmin. Both our bodies were rolling in the dust.
After this incident, I stopped talking to Dada and Haseena.
When Ma returned and heard everything, she paced from one room to the other; she paced uselessly, muttering, “Her body is filled with jealousy. She can’t stand Suhrid. One day she will poison and kill the boy.”
Baba heard about the incident and did not react.
On observing Baba’s silence, Ma screamed and said, “After hearing how your son and his wife beat your daughters almost to death, you still aren’t doing anything about it! Yasmin can’t even move her body; her bones are all broken with the beating! I will give Suhrid back to Kamaal. He is their enemy. The boy is being brought up in this house. That is what they just can’t stand. You stay with your son and his wife. I will go away someplace. Khuda, what a son I gave birth to! He not only beats his own sisters, he does so along with his wife.”
Faced with Baba’s silence, Ma screamed, “Nasreen, Yasmin, look for boys, get married and leave this house quickly. Your father, too, will encourage his son to beat you into cripples.”
No one answered Ma’s statements.
Seven days later, Dada informed this stuffy house that he had been transferred to Bongura. Baba called Dada, made him sit next to him and asked, “Why Bongura?”
“How do I know? The company has transferred me”, Dada replied unhappily.
“Is Bongura a place to go? What is there in Bongura?”
“A formidable fortress is there.”
“What will you do with a formidable fortress?”
“They get very good curd in Bongura.”
“Are you going there out of greed for that curd?”
“I am going because I have been transferred.”
“Where will you stay so far away, leaving your own home? What will you eat?”
Dada rose and went away, Baba continued to sit. Ma hurried him up, “Rice has been served; have your food.”
That night, Baba had no wish to eat. Holding on to his hair with his two hands, he kept sitting.
The person who was the happiest at Dada’s transfer was Haseena. She counted the crockery and the cutlery, and packed them in boxes. Sitting in front of the black gate in a chair, swinging her feet, Haseena made an inventory of all Dada’s furniture and packed them into trunks. Even the television.
After Dada and all left, the rooms suddenly looked bare. In one corner lay the old, faded, cane sofa and a few peeling chairs. There were some square marks on the wall and a few hooks.
I noticed, quite often, that Ma sat alone in the verandah, towards dusk. I couldn’t understand whether the sound of Ma’s deep sighs floated into the room along with the breeze. The evening lamps lit every room. Ma continued to sit alone in the dark, the tasbih, rosary, hanging from her hands, moving. Leaving my room, shaking off my stiffness, I paced up and down the courtyard uselessly, one evening.
“Ma, why are you sitting outside? Come in.”
Heaving a loud sigh, Ma said, “Noman left the house in anger! If the son of the house doesn’t stay at home, who wants to stay then?”
“Why do you keep saying Noman, Noman? Aren’t we there? Or is it that we are no one to you!”
“Girls, you see, leave home when they get married.”
In a bitter tone I said, “It is your sons who have gone to other homes. It is your daughters who have remained.”
“Daughters are here today, gone tomorrow,” said Ma.
“Your sons aren’t here even today. There’s no question of tomorrow.”
Ma became silent.
Leaning with my two hands and swinging back and forth on the clothes line in the verandah, staring towards the darkness of the courtyard, I said, “You keep saying sons, sons. But both yours have moved away.”
“Yes, they’ve all gone. Now their wives are dearest to them. Father, mother, brothers and sisters are of no consequence”, said Ma in a faint voice.
inside. I sat with peaceful silence surrounding me. Yasmin just slept all day.
She was attending Anandamohan everyday. But at home she was not interested in
her books at all. Baba had asked Debnath Pandit to come home and teach Yasmin,
but he had refused. He had refused because the number of students had increased
to such an extent that it was difficult for him to take time out for a single
student. He could only teach in ‘groups’. Yasmin joined these ‘groups’ at
Debnath Pandit’s house. On her return, she would throw her books away saying,
“I don’t understand a word of what he teaches!” At home she never sat down with
her books. Startling the stillness of the house, I screamed, “Yasmin, sit down
to study.” Yasmin turned over and slept. I yelled again, “Get up, sit down to
study.” Yasmin shouted me down. She was aware of what she had to do, she knew
better and no one needed to give her any advice. She kept me at a distance. A
white cat was now my companion. One cat. A cat was a better option. A hundred
times better than a human being. I sat hugging the cat close. In this house,
cats entered either through the gap in the drain or by jumping over the wall.
They lay in wait for an opportunity to enter the kitchen and put their mouths
into the vessels. Whenever one came, Ma shooed it away. It seems all cats were
“thieving cats.” They went away when shooed, but came back again. This white
cat, when it came, had been shooed away as well. It had been taken to the drain
on the other side of the black gate and thrown over. The cat had cleaned itself
and returned to the house again. Finally the cat had been left in the confusion
of the perishable raw foods at Notun Bazar. The next day I found the cat
sunning herself in the courtyard. This time Baba ordered that it should be tied
up in a sack and thrown on the other side of the river. That was also done.
Salaam put the cat into a sack, tied the open end tightly with a rope, hired a
boat and went and threw it on the other bank of the
Ma was still outside in the dark; the Tasbih in her hands did not move.
The Bridal Bed of Flowers
I had seen lakes and rivers, but had never yet seen the sea. After Dada returned with his bride from their honeymoon at the sea-side beach resort of Coxbazar, I had asked, “Dada dear, what does the sea look like?” Dada had said only one thing that you had to see it to believe it. “What the sea is like, can never be described in words, one has to stand before the sea to appreciate it.” Dada was more enthusiastic about the aeroplane than the sea. He had flown in a plane for the first time. So far, whenever Chhotda had told us stories about planes, Dada’s eyes had been full of desire. That hunger in his eyes had finally been quenched. None of mine was quenched however. I was keener about the sea rather than the plane.
Without having seen the sea, just on the basis of the photographs of Dada and Haseena taken at the sea-side, I wrote three poems about the sea. When my heart was full of this unseen sea, “Let’s go and visit the sea, pack your clothes” was the cry that arose. In the fourth year this wonderful event took place. A whole class of students with the Professors of Community Medicine went far away, far in the sense anywhere between the north of the country and its southern most tip. At the tip was a mass of silvery water, in which you could drown or float. Of course it was said that we were being taken to observe a humid climate, but actually it was to give us a change of atmosphere. Like patients needed a change of air to recuperate, doctors-to-be too needed a change of scene. They got a small break from the hospital and its air, filled night and day with the smell of pus.
We were to go from Mymensingh to
Next day on the train, sometimes joining
in the fun and games, and sometimes sitting gloomy eyed at the window, I
reached Chattagram. From Chattagram, we drove through a forest along a winding
path which had rows of rubber plantations. By the time we crossed these and
reached Chattagram, my excitement was at its peak. The bus was moving towards a
sound, a tremendous sound, different, earth-shaking, water-rippling sound. I
tried to make out where exactly the sound was coming from. My eyes just
wouldn’t leave the windows of the bus. Far away something white was rising and
falling. Safinaz, with whom from a casual friendship, I had now graduated to a
close one, hung out of the window and said “Is that the sea?” Being a girl who
had never been to the sea-side, I wanted to get off the bus and run to see if
this really was the sea or not, but who would allow me to do that? First we had
to go to the motel, only after that could we go to see the sea. At the motel,
instead of two, four people were put into one room. After keeping my suitcase
in the room assigned, the first thing I did was to run towards that sound. No
bath, no food, no rest. I had to visit the sea first, before I did anything
else. Safinaz was a methodical girl, a girl who ‘ate at meal times, studied at
study-time, slept at sleep time.’ But she had to accompany me in my excitement.
I did not walk towards that loud roar, I ran. When I reached it, surprise and
enchantment rendered me inert, numb and stupefied. I could not utter a single
word. Something so vast, so wondrously beautiful, so amazingly delightful to
the heart, I had never seen in my life. I had grown up next to the small pond
at Nanibari. The three cornered lake in town was twice the size of the pond at
Nanibari. I had had to wait for a few years to see it. I had seen the
‘Touching its lips to the salty water, I saw that the full moon in the sky had fallen over. My body danced in joy, the raw autumnal scents brought on the tempests. The sea, putting to sleep the princess on her magic bedstead, with a golden wand at its head, called come, come, yet again come!’
From the sea, we were brought back to
Chattagram. Arrangements were made for the girls to stay in the Chattagram Medical
College Girls Hostel, and for the boys in the Boys Hostel. Along with Halida,
Safinaz, Shipra and a few other friends, I wandered around under a green
hillock, along the meandering blue waters of the
The night before we were to leave
“Who will you go with?” he asked.
“Who was I going with?
The simple answer to this would have been to point out the bearded gentleman and say “with him.” The next question that would arise would then be “Who is he, what is he?” That answer could possibly be, “He is Rudra, a poet.” The next question to be expected, and a very natural one because the professor was a simpleton would be “Who is he to you?”
Seeing my unhappy face, Shaukat and Madira came to my rescue. Both had had a love marriage, they knew the joy of breaking away from the party. Shaukat whispered in my ear, “First tell me if you are married or not. Sir will have to be told you are going with your husband, otherwise he will not let you go.”
No, this fact could not be disclosed. If this Sir went and informed my Baba Sir, it would be disastrous. Shaukat, laughing at the sight of my undecided stance, said, “Tell Sir that it is a secret and is not to be disclosed to anyone!”
“Suppose he does?”
you come back to
Shaukat cleared the way for me to go to
The launch was plying over the
“Why? This one is fine.”
I was wearing a white sari. Although not used to wearing them, all the girls had worn saris for the sea-side excursion. At this chance to wear saris I too had been quite delighted.
“Do as I say.”
“Why, am I looking bad in this sari?”
“Yes. Change it. Hurry up. The ghat is approaching.”
“Is it really necessary to change the sari?”
“Yes, very necessary.”
Rudra obviously did not have ideas only about poetry, he thought about saris as well. He would not accept me wearing a cotton sari. I had to wear a kataan silk.
“I don’t feel like wearing a kataan.”
“None of them are ironed.”
“Doesn’t matter, wear one anyway.”
I had to wear a kataan. It couldn’t be green or blue in colour. I had to wear red. All my saris were wet and crumpled with sea-water. I had to wear one of these perforce. Reaching the ghat in the afternoon, I saw a deserted port. A few empty sampans were tied to the docks. The place looked like a village, and yet was really not one. Misgivings arose in my heart. After crossing endless rows of slums, Rudra stopped the rickshaw in front of a double-storeyed house and said “Now, like a good girl, please cover your head with the end of your sari, ghomta!”
I started with shock at Rudra’s words.
“Ghomta on my head? Why?”
“Arrey, put it on.”
“I never do these things.”
“I know you don’t, but do it now.”
“Can’t you understand, you are the daughter-in-law of this house?”
My whole body shook on hearing this. I got all mixed up with feelings of great joy, shame and fear, and was not really sure what to do. Rudra said, “You will have to touch people’s feet and salaam.”
“I have never done it.”
“You will have to.”
“I will not be able to do it. Impossible.”
“Why can’t you understand? It will look bad if you don’t salaam.”
“Why should it look bad?”
“Why? What does it mean, to touch people’s feet?”
“You must do so of elders. Why don’t you realize? You are after all the ‘Bou’ of the house.”
“Let it look bad. I can’t do all this.”
“Ish, what a pain you are!”
“Won’t it do if I say salaam verbally, without touching their feet?”
“No, it won’t do.”
My joy had evaporated, and my whole body was consumed with discomfort. I just could not touch people’s feet. When I wore new clothes at Id, Ma would tell me, “Go and salaam your Baba.”