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       Two Faces of a Mirror

By Tulip Chowdhury

Asma, the mother of two children, was deep in thought. She mumbled, “Poverty has a similar picture everywhere; a vast void, an ugly monster crying with endless wants.” She was thinking out loud.  

The early hours of the day were peaceful for her, with children sleeping, and it was the only part of the day that she could enjoy solitude. She would get the mud stove going and cook the rice when the sky became brighter. The fire was kept going with sticks and dry leaves her daughter, Sumi, collected from the nearby thickets.

 Poverty, malnourishment, and hard work made Asma look older than her actual age. At mid-thirty, most of her hair had turned white. As she reflected on her complicated life in Ramna, a village in Bangladesh, tears welled in her eyes. As a farmer’s wife, they had good days in the past when harvests were good crops, and they had enough rice to eat for the year. But farming for a couple of years was riddled with natural calamities in the delta. Monsoons were unpredictable; either drought or flooding affected their crops.

“Somehow, life seems to pressure people like us, the needy all the more,” Asma continued in her monologue. Talking to herself had become a thing lately. While the heart and the mind battled over reasons and passions, she found it easier to voice her worries to herself. Asma heard a yellow bird calling loudly from a nearby tree. The bird’s “Coo, coo.” broke into the quiet morning. The villagers believed yellow birds call to announce forthcoming weddings. Asma wondered who was getting married and what message the bird was bringing. She smiled as daydreams came with thoughts of having her daughter, Sumi, a twelve-year-old daughter married — the sooner, the better. Sumi was not a teenager and hadn’t had her first menstruation cycle, but that didn’t mean she had to wait long. Girls got married as early as eleven or twelve in the village. Asma could well imagine how days would fly. Her daughter would reach puberty, and there would be a hurry to find a husband.

On the other hand, she remembered some television programmes she had watched in the landlord’s house about the adverse effects of early marriages. Belonging to the village meant abiding by its norms and marrying off girls as soon as possible. The older girls had fewer chances of finding a husband. It seemed to Asma that men looked at girls like guavas,  neither too young nor too old, just the right crunch to satisfy their desires. “Those TV ads about the marriage age for girls at eighteen, who cares about them?” she spoke aloud as if asking the gust of wind that touched her face. The coconut trees standing in the corner of the yard had droopy branches that swayed with the wind as if nodding in agreement. Asma reached for her long hair hanging down her back and, with an expert twist, made a bun that settled on her nape. Her gentle eyes, pert nose, and wide mouth on her oval face held an air of quiet grace and kindness. She smiled as she heard the yellow bird call again.

She wondered if the bird was a messenger for the girl named Lucky from the village. Lucky’s mother had confided that her daughter had just had her first menstruation. And if that was so, it would mean a little feast waiting for them. She hoped that Lucky’s mother would send an invitation. It seemed ages since she had some excellent food like pulau and korma.

Her happy thoughts suddenly broke the note when a crow called out ominous notes of “Caw, caw”. The bird dimmed the lights of hope for Asma. Something sad about that bird’s call sent a shiver down her spine. The crow was not a bird the villagers favoured. A gust of cold wind swept through the trees around the yard, and it was a reminder that winter was not far away. The sun climbed higher. Although the sky was bright with the rising sun of autumn, she worried about the coming cold days when her children would suffer from a lack of warm clothes. God, why did the cold days have to come? It only brought more trouble for her. Asma had a firm belief in God but often could not connect to harsh life and the different ways of life He gave to people. There was discrimination somewhere; why did the village landlord have so much wealth and her husband, such a good man, had so little? This was a puzzle. Asma stared at the infinite sky with endless unanswered questions.

The rising sun’s warmth reminded her that it was time to prepare food. She knew that the little bit of rice was in the pot was not enough for all of them. That meant borrowing again. She called out to her daughter, “Sumi. Sumi, wake up and get some rice from the Boroma[1] from Jamindar Bari. We don’t have enough to cook today. “

Jamindar Bari was the landlord’s house, and they had always been kind enough to lend some rice every now and then. Sumi joined her mother on the porch and asked, “Will they allow us to borrow? We didn’t return the last rice.”

“Hmmm?” Asma carefully observed her daughter’s sleepy face, noting the unkempt hair that framed her oval face. The girl’s large, dark eyes were questioning as she looked at her mother. Her eyes closed for a second, reflecting momentarily on the possibility of not having any meals for the day. She could picture her two children sitting with empty plates with hunger raging in their stomachs. Tears welled up in her eyes. Drying them with the end of her sari, she came up with an idea.

“Tell your Boroma that your father has gone to the next village for some work and when he returns, we will be sure to return the rice.”

Boroma was a kind woman, and it was challenging to think up excuses every time she failed to keep her word and return the things she took from her rich neighbour. She felt resentment against her husband, Kutub, for his inability to provide them with enough food and clothing. But then she told herself that at least she had a good man who had not married a second wife, a man who did not beat her and, most importantly, had not been unfaithful to her. And Asma felt relieved that her husband did not visit any red light areas. If he did, she would have heard the rumours. Though a small community, the villagers were undoubtedly quick to catch on gossip.

As Sumi started to walk toward the landlord’s house, Asma sighed. Despite the sorrows about life’s unfairness, she felt proud to be the only wife of a good man. She had endless unfulfilled needs, but at least she could hold her head high regarding family matters. The vicious cycle of poverty had gnawed at that. Manik, Asma’s four-year-old son, came out of the house to ask for some sweets, and he was hungry upon waking from sleep.

“Where can I get sweets all of a sudden?” She asked her son as she lovingly hugged his frail little body. He had been in better health when she had been breastfeeding him. But now, with the bit of food she managed to put on his plate, he had grown much thinner.

Manik looked at his mother for a while and then asked,”Where did Ruku get his sweet? I just saw him eating some yesterday.” Ruku was the son of Hiram Khan, the owner of the only barber shop in the village. They were pretty well off, with the store doing good business.

“They have bought it from the sweet shop, but I don’t have the money to buy any for you.” Asma looked at her son’s crestfallen face and added,” Maybe when your Baba comes, he will get some for you.”

“Why don’t you have money? Ruku’s mother gave the sweets to him.”

Asma wished that she had an answer to her son’s question. She said, “It is Allah’s will, son, and don’t question His ways.” She could not find better words of consolation for her little son. Perhaps someday things would change, and maybe she would have enough to eat and have proper clothes to wear. Possibly her husband will eventually own a shop and not depend on nature for rice.

*

As Asma waited for her daughter to return with the rice, she continued to look at the sun, climbing higher in the sky. She needed to cook the rice soon, for Manik would ask for food. Just then, her husband Kutub walked into the yard. She was surprised that he was two more days earlier than his due day. But she noted that he was smiling and looked happy. Maybe he found some unexpected money and had come home before.

Asma’s hopes spread wings and filled her heart with excitement. Her husband’s smiling face touched her with joy, and she smiled back. “Why, you are up early. Have you got some good luck?” She asked, taking her husband’s shirt from his hand.

“Wait, let me sit down, and then I have something to tell you,” Kutub said, settling down on an old bamboo bench that served as a sitting place for him. Asma sat still with rapt attention, wondering what right turn was coming from her husband.

Kutub began, “There is a village nearby called Shaina, and I went to work there for a rich farmer last month, remember? The farmer has his sons in Saudi Arabia who send him money and are rich. The farmer has a widowed daughter.” Kutub paused, looking intently at his wife. Asma listened with anticipation, getting more hopeful every moment. She knew about that look on her husband’s face, the rare light that lit up his eyes.

While they were talking, Sumi returned with rice, her mother instructed  her mother to start cooking the rice. Kutub was silent until his daughter moved away. And then he continued,

“It seemed the farmer knows our landlord and asked him about me. Our landlord praised me. The root of all this is that the farmer wants to get his daughter married to me. And since having a second wife is allowed in the village and common too, I was the man of choice.”
Here Kutub stopped. He looked for a long while at his wife’s sweet, honest face. “And so, the farmer wants me to marry his daughter, and in return, he will send me off to Saudi Arabia. Imagine how much money I could earn once in the country of the Saudis. Why we will be rich! You should have seen the farmer’s grand house filled with expensive furniture and the food they eat. They live like kings. I should accept the offer. What do you think?”

Asma could hardly grasp what he was talking about at first, then slowly, the reality of the sacrifice and the reward sunk in. Her husband was about to get a second wife in return, and she could enjoy some good days. Her first impulse was to shout, “No!” and run away.

But then, a voice seemed to tell her that Kutub was doing this for her and the children. The marriage would bring money into her home; they would finally not be hungry anymore. Yet another voice wailed inside her; the dignity of being her husband’s only wife would be lost. Why had she strutted like a proud peacock because her husband had no second woman?

 Asma thought of the poverty and all that they needed and didn’t have. A marriage to bring in money from Saudi Arabia would be the solution to their poverty.

Asma had tears running down her face as she asked, “Is the rich man’s daughter beautiful?”

Suddenly, she began to see her husband in a new light. She still liked to believe in his goodness and wanted to think that what he was about to do was for their good, for their children’s sake. She tried to feel good with the thought that he was only going away to Saudi Arabia to bring money for them. The second marriage was a medium to bring happiness to her and the children.

She half listened to Kutub talking away about how wealthy his to-be in-laws were and how well off Asma and the children would be if only he could enter that luxurious house. They could even make a new home in the village, and all could live happily. “You will always be my first wife, the Borobou ( Senior wife); the second one shall look up to you for advice.”

Asma sat there listening to her husband, trying to picture happier days when her children would have their plates filled with rice. She felt gladto think  the weight of poverty would lighten. Yet, somewhere deep in her soul, she felt a deep void, as if somebody was stealing something—a puzzled expression set on her eyes. Indeed, life can be perplexing; poverty can play vicious games.

The yellow bird called again, and Asma wanted to say aloud to her husband, “I didn’t know the wedding messenger bird was bringing news of my husband’s second marriage.” No wonder the crow had joined the yellowbird and sent its warning notes too.

Asma thought life reflected two sides of the mirror. She had yet to find if there were a third perspective too.

[1] Landlord’s wife: literally senior mother

Tulip Chowdhury is an educationaist and a writer. She enjoys connecting to nature and has authored several books. She writes from Massachusetts, USA.

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

Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

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