By Sohana Manzoor
When Shefa Nanu died, I was about fourteen years old. It was an awkward age to be honest. I was neither a woman, nor a girl. When people said, “O my, isn’t she all grown up,” I felt awfully conscious of myself. Sometimes I wished to be invisible, and half the times I didn’t want to go visiting. But Shefa Nanu’s death was an unavoidable occasion and I had to tag along with my mother and grandmother.
Shefa Nanu was my maternal grandmother’s first cousin. She was also the widow of a well-respected lawyer and the mother of an important political figure. I had been to their large house in Elephant Road many times. Even though she was the mistress of a very busy household, she always had time for my Nanu. They were not merely cousins but bosom friends as well. I used to play with their two cats, Abby and Minnie while the two grandmothers chatted away like teen-age girls. Shefa Nanu was the only person alive who could call my Nanu by her first name. I would feel guilt-ridden if I did not go. So, I braced myself for the inevitable.
You can only guess that my Nanu had cried her heart out by the time we reached the two storied house near Mallika Cinema Hall at Elephant Road. Shefa Nanu had died in the middle of the night and it was around 9:30 in the morning when we reached the house of the dead as they call it. The entire house was full of people and I could not spot one face that looked familiar.
This is one reason I hate visiting the dead. There are always too many people; all the forgotten and half-forgotten relatives and friends turn up when someone dies. Suddenly, a woman in shabby brown threw her arms around my mother and cried, “O Runu Apa, you’ve come at last! What will happen now that Amma is gone?” At her wailing I realised it was Shefa Nanu’s daughter-in-law, Naina Auntie. I gaped at her in surprise because she was all covered up. A well-endowed lady, she had always shown too much skin. Shefa Nanu was forever criticising Naina Auntie’s ways, while Auntie too was always complaining against her mother-in-law. But why was she crying like this? Didn’t she want to go away from this hell-house and live elsewhere?
Then I saw Lubaba and Shababa, her two daughters. Shababa was about eight years old and Lubaba was slightly older than me. Both of them were attired in old, wrinkled clothes and I was even more surprised because Naina Auntie always made a point to keep them spotless and well-dressed in company. What had happened to them?
I was about to ask something when Lubaba motioned us all to go inside. We learnt that the body was in the freezer and not inside the house. They would bring her in as soon as Shefa Nanu’s eldest daughter and youngest son arrived. I remembered Shefa Nanu’s youngest son Tushar Mama quite well. He went abroad to pursue higher studies and among his six siblings he was the only one not yet married. So, he was flying in from the US and Samina Auntie from Australia. Both were supposed to be coming in by mid-noon. They had boarded the planes as soon as they had heard about Shefa Nanu’s hospitalisation.
Lubaba whispered to us that Tonuka Auntie wouldn’t make it as she was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Her husband would not allow her to travel all the way from New York. I saw Tuhin Mama and his wife greeting the guests. They seemed composed even though I could see that both of them had been crying.
As we occupied three chairs in the room adjacent to the drawing room where the men were seated, my eyes fell on a tall woman dressed fashionably in a black lace saree. She had sharp features and a complexion too white. Did she put on make-up? I had never seen anyone wearing make-up when they attend funeral or visit a house where someone has died. I could not help staring at her when I heard a most interesting thread of conversation.
A fat lady in pale green shalwar-kameez started to prattle, “I don’t know why Shakil is still missing and why Naina is putting up all that show of grieving. She must be awfully relieved that her mother-in-law is gone.” Then she lowered her voice and asked another lady sitting right beside her, “Did you hear, by the way, about Shakil’s affair with that other woman? … the young widow of Pintu Shikder? Now that his mother is not there anymore, I wonder ….”
“Shush,” replied the other lady, “Don’t talk about these things now.” She paused and said rather philosophically, “But what will happen, will happen.” Then she too lowered her voice and whispered loud enough for me to hear, “I doubt Naina has anything to fear right away. The elections are near, and he won’t get nomination if he divorces his wife now.”
My mother and Nanu were too stricken to pay attention to any of these. But I was gobbling up the bits of gossip round-eyed and wondered how much truth they contained. My still young heart could not fathom why Shefa Auntie would stop her son from getting married to another woman when his current wife was a wicked one. Suddenly, we heard some male voice wailing in the next room, “O Bubu, my sweet Bubu, why did you leave me like this? I am a useless creature—who will feed me now? (Sound of sobbing) My children and I will perish in the streets… O Bubu…”
I sat astounded. Now, who was that? Then I remembered that Shefa Nanu had a younger brother called Shamsul, who was the black-sheep of his family. He had gambled away his share of the property inherited from his father. Shefa Nanu provided his family a regular allowance to save them from destitution. He even lived in the apartment Nanu had got as her share in her father’s property. What a scumbag!
At this point, several ladies entered the room where we were sitting. They had prayer beads in their hands, and they were asking people how many times they had recited the Darud Sharif. The women stopped whispering and started nudging each other and speaking in more audible tones. A young woman with downcast eyes was writing down the figures. When she left the room with another woman, my mother asked, “Who’s she? I don’t think I’ve seen her before.”
“Oh that?” A lady in hijaab replied, “That’s Tultul’s wife.”
“Tultul’s wife?” echoed both my mother and Nanu. “And who’s Tultul?”
Suddenly, people around us looked confused. Nobody seemed to know who Tultul was. Someone muttered, “Well, she introduced herself as Tultul’s wife. And since nobody objected, I assumed everybody knows Tultul.”
An old lady in white said, “Probably, he is one of the distant cousins. What does it matter? She is very helpful.”
Then we heard fresh commotion outside. Someone screamed, “Samina has arrived. Ah, Sami — your ma is no more. You’re all orphans now…” A fresh bout of wailing started and in the middle of all the hubbub, the lady in black asked, “Is there a landline somewhere? I need to call my husband in Chittagong. My cell-phone charge is gone.”
The way she moved and spoke, out of the blue I was reminded of a snake. This woman could easily be dubbed as Rupashi Nagin (beautiful snake woman). Then suddenly, my eyes fell on her wrist: a tattoo of a green snake in the shape of a bangle entwined one of her wrists, and on the other was a fat red frog. This time, my jaw dropped, and I could not take my eyes off her tattoos.
Then someone showed her a land phone hanging on the wall in the far-end of the room. There she continued to talk oblivious to her surroundings.
I frantically wished I could go home. I never liked being in the house of the dead, but it is one of those responsibilities one cannot avoid. I wondered miserably the point of attending such a farce where most people were actually acting crazy. Around 2:30 we were all ushered in a large room near the kitchen and had lunch that consisted of khichuri (porridge of dal and rice) beef, salad and fried eggplants. Someone was sniffing, “Khala (aunt) loved fried egg-plants. She just loved to eat and she had to be diabetic too! She suffered so much!’
A wave of hysteria was bubbling inside me when someone cried, “Tushar is home. Ah, Tushar, your mother missed you so much….” I wondered if I was going crazy too like the rest.
So, everybody that was expected to arrive, had come. I felt tired and down. I could not understand why people acted so strange under these circumstances. Someone announced that the dead body was brought in and my Nanu and mother went to see her for one last time. I shook my head and went to stand in the veranda. I was feeling really sick.
As I watched the crowd, as I saw the ridiculous way people acted, I did not know how to react. I felt awkward and out of place. But as I kept on looking, suddenly, a strange idea came to my mind.
I thought I could discern how death was one phenomenon nobody really knew how to deal with. I felt awkward and out of place. We were so afraid of death, of the unknown, we just acted strange. Our regular thoughts went awry, and we did weird stuff. We talked of scandals, weddings, regular activities that we engage in everyday. Those regular everyday things seen from perspective of the death, verged on the border of ridiculous. The normalcy disappeared. And yet, wasn’t everyday life bubbling around the corner?
I spotted my grandmother standing on one side of the yard, crying silently, holding on to my mother. I felt like hugging her, but I was rooted to the spot with the knowledge that someday in near future, I will lose her too. The world became hazy and I, too, started crying.
Sohana Manzoor teaches English at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.