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The Silhouette

A short story by Sohana Manzoor

Nishat got up from the swing and walked to the edge of the balcony to look at the procession leaving the house. They left her with no choice now. She will have to do what she had only put off from doing all these years.

Nishat’s husband, Muhib was ever ambitious, shoving all ethics under the carpet and disposing off his oppositions right and left. Nishat was finally tired of picking up the pieces and resuming normalcy. She was done with pretending to be naïve and stupid. Her thoughts turn to her children. Miserable mother that she was, she had failed utterly in raising them.

Her son Purbo was getting married and she had just refused to attend the wedding. For the first time in her life she had looked at her husband and said quietly, “You have sold your son to the highest bidder and I refuse to accept it.” There was pin drop silence in the room and her two daughters, Rima and Rikta had gone white. Purbo sat like a statue and her husband Muhib stared at her in sheer disbelief. Nobody knew that Nishat could think like that, let alone speak. The ever-patient wife and mother had finally thrown a gauntlet to her imposing husband and the fashionable but useless brood she had raised. They just stared at it and did not know what to do with it. Nor did they understand what it meant. Nishat spoke again, “If you return to this house with your chosen daughter-in-law, I will leave the house. You will never see me again.”

Of course, nobody believed what she said, but they could not quite laugh her threat away. The shadow of a dead girl was already at the threshold of their posh home. And hence they all felt a nagging uneasiness.

Purbo was supposed to marry Shreya. They had known each other since school and Muhibur Rahman was then a regular service-holder. Both families were in agreement that Purbo and Shreya would marry. But when Purbo finally came back from abroad with a PhD in Economics, things had drastically changed. By that time, his father had earned tons of money through business and consultancy and was looking for a better match for his brilliant and only son. Purbo, of course would not hear of anybody else until he met Farina—the gorgeous daughter of his father’s newly acquainted friend and business-partner. Initially, he was reluctant, but then he too was swayed by the riches of his prospective father-in-law and his charming daughter.

He started to compare the two girls and Shreya, even though quite attractive, kept on falling short by his newly acquired western yardstick. He had already taken to occasional drinking and Shreya with her middle-class upbringing, wrinkled her nose at the mention of alcohol. She was curious about the parties that Purbo frequented, but he did not show interest in taking her there. Purbo also felt irritated with some other typically middle-class aptitude she showed. Finally, he realised that there was nothing Shreya could give him that could tie him to her for an entire lifetime. Unfortunately, that realization did not deter him from taking advantage of her. And Shreya, in her last efforts to retain him, lost miserably. Nishat still recalled with an aching heart the young woman who had come to see her with an ashen face for the last time. She had seen her grow up and could not protect her from her own son.

Then one fine afternoon, Purbo announced to a delighted father and a dumbfounded mother that he had broken off with Shreya and he was ready to marry Farina. Nishat looked at her son sadly and said, “But Shreya waited only for you all these years. She could have been married by now…”

Her husband laughed out aloud, “Shreya is not good enough for our Purbo. Why should he be happy with glass when he can have diamonds?”

Nishat said quietly, “You don’t know if Farina is diamond. And what makes you think Shreya is not diamond. She may not have a rich father…”

Muhib raised his hand and said irritably, “Enough. My son will marry whoever I want him to.”

“Your son? Is he not mine too?”

Muhibul Islam looked at his wife with surprise. “What has gotten into you, woman? What rubbish are you talking about? Purbo himself said he won’t marry Shreya. That’s it.”

Nishat said in a voice that was unlike her affable self, “Purbo should marry Shreya. You pride yourself of wealth and money. Don’t forget that Shreya’s father gave you the initial capital to start off your venture.” Muhib’s face darkened. “You promised on his death-bed that Shreya will be your daughter-in-law.”

Nobody spoke for a while. Muhib tried to laugh as he said, “I will pay Shreya off. I will give her back her father’s share of the money. Money should not tie two people together.” He paused and added reprovingly, “Now push away that middle-class mentality of yours. We are rising!”

Nishat sat in her chair frozen. Years of memories with Shreya and her parents threatened to drown her. She looked at her son askance; she could not see the rambunctious boy she had raised in this clean-shaven young man ready to shed his past like a dead skin.

*

It would be hours before they were back. She might as well take a last look around the house that had been her home for the last fifteen years. Every piece of it was her creation. Her husband and children may have gotten many of the rare and expensive articles in the house, but she took care of their whereabouts. She was the one who kept the house speckless. When people came to visit, they noted the burnished furniture, soft carpets in the drawing room with three different sitting arrangements. From the green plants in brass pots right outside the windows to the trinkets displayed on marble top side tables—everything bespoke her taste. Nobody knew though how she had hidden all her frustration and sorrow beneath them. Her life, thoughts, expectations, and even her children, were taken away from her bit by bit. All she was left with were these souvenirs. A curator of dead values and emotions — that is what she had become.

As she walked about her much-loved garden, she placed her bare feet in the soft grass. The blue, pink and yellow grass flowers in the bed nodded at her. She did not like roses and refused to have them. Instead, she had planted deshi* flowers like hajar beli, hasnahena and jasmine. Instead of bougainvillea, she had madhabilata climbing up her gate. Yes, there were caterpillars in them, and her children often objected to the tree. But she used to laugh those away.

She wondered how things would change now that she had decided to leave. Would they cut the madhabilata creeper, and these local flowers down? Would they create hot houses for roses? Would there be chrysanthemums and poppies in the flowerbeds?  She sighed. But what did it matter? When one chose to leave, one should never look back. Now she had to hurry to make arrangements. Standing at the landing of the stairwell, she called out to Minu. Minu had been with her for years—since she got married. Nobody called her by her first name anymore except Nishat.

Bhaijaan*, come home quickly.  Something bad has happened to Bubu…. “The line went off and Muhib did not know what to make of it. Here he was standing and chatting amiably with his behai* Chowdhury Modabber Islam. Everybody knew Modabber Islam, who was not only a business tycoon, but also very important personnel. What was there to tell? Of course, Muhibur Rahman had made a name for himself too, but he lacked the family name. His son was a rising economist and he intended to see him well-settled in the society. Wasn’t it bad enough that his wife was not at the wedding? She had announced dramatically the week before that she was not happy with their son’s wedding and would leave the house if the marriage took place. Stupid woman. Now how to get home “quickly” leaving all these behind? Muhib just waved aside the uneasy knot that was getting bigger and tighter.

Muhib got home slightly earlier than the rest. They would be arriving in another half an hour. The entire house was ablaze with lights. Masuda, his wife’s personal maid, was waiting at the top of the stairs and she was in tears. Nishat called her “Minu” though and the familiarity that existed between them always made him uncomfortable.

“I’m sure, something terrible has happened. Bubu gave bakhshish* to all of us and then she locked herself inside,” Masuda said in a broken voice. She chose not to reveal that her mistress had given away her old and heavy wedding necklace and a pair of gold bangles too.

“But these should go to the aunties!” the maid had protested.

“Rima and Rikta? They don’t care for these. These came from my parents. These are old fashioned, and they will throw these away or change for something fancy. I want you to have them, Minu. You knew my parents and cared for them.”

Muhib noted with irritation that Minu referred to his wife as “Bubu.” Could she not call her, “Madam,” or “Apa” at least? “Bubu” sounded too intimate. He knocked on the door and then rapped. He shouted, “For God’s sake, Nishat. Don’t make a scene now. Today’s your son’s wedding day.” But even to him the words sounded hollow. Nishat’s voice mocked at him, “You’ve sold your son to the highest bidder.”

Finally, they had to break the door down.

They found her in the bathtub of her bathroom. As the police carried away her body, Muhib wondered detachedly why she chose to die exactly as Shreya did. Was there not a less dramatic way out?

Seated in the small parlour on the first floor, Muhibur Rahman suddenly had a taste of sand in his mouth. The initial shock and rage were replaced by a despondency he did not know he was capable of feeling. The blank and dead look in his children’s eyes had hit him harder than any loss he had ever encountered. Earlier he had been wondering how he would explain it to the bevy of friends and relatives. Now, however, he felt despair sinking into him. It was rather easy to ignore the shadow of his unhappy wife as she was living. Now she might be dead to the rest of the world, but how in the world was he going to ignore the ignoble wife who had transformed into a silhouette to haunt him and his children as long as they lived?

*Deshi — indigenous

*Bhaijan — brother

*Behai — father-in -law of the son

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at ULAB.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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