By Sohana Manzoor
Parul sat on the narrow bench of the veranda looking at the two potatoes in her hand. They were small, brownish, and round — very ordinary potatoes. But Parul looked at them endearingly. One bore her name, while the other was inscribed with a heart-shaped hole. Parul’s body and soul were enraptured with feelings she had never known. She felt like singing and dancing. Saleha was busy in the kitchen and there was nobody else at home. That meant there was no one to obstruct her from enjoying a little respite from her daily chore of sweeping the floors of the sprawling fourth-floor apartment that had been her home for the past two years.
She looked intently at a particular window of the building behind theirs. The young man whom she had often seen looking at her was not there. But Parul’s heart whispered to her that it was he who had sent her the tuberous missive. “My Potato Prince,” she said softly. She remembered the story of the Frog Prince that Dadi Amma often told her two younger grandchildren. And here was her Potato Prince. She giggled. She felt like Cinderella, a cartoon she had watched along with Rumee and Rehan. Of course, Parul considered the girl somewhat foolish for not revealing her identity sooner. But that was a fairytale, and Parul was more bold and intelligent than her. But Cinderella also swept floors and washed dishes like Parul, and now she too has secured a prince for herself!
Parul got up from the bench and strutted to the edge of the veranda. There were several crimson roses blooming in the flower pots. She plucked one and inhaled its fragrance. She was tired of sweeping and scrubbing floors. She had learned to read and write; not because she loved it, but because it was necessary to be somewhat educated to become a lady. She would be a housewife, so learning to read and write was good enough. She inhaled the fragrance once more. Where was her prince? She wanted him to see her with the rose. She wanted him to know that she might dress as a servant, but she was beautiful and charming enough to don the attire of a princess, and become his. Parul coyly twirled the flower between her fingers, unconsciously imitating an actress she had seen in an old Hindi movie.
A shrill voice from inside the house rudely interrupted her reverie. “Pa-rul! How long does it take to sweep the verandah? Hurry up and come back to the kitchen!”
Parul refrained from making a face. She continued looking earnestly at that other fourth floor window. Hearing a second summon, however, she picked up the broom and reluctantly went back inside.
Parul found Saleha standing with arms akimbo in the middle of the dining room. She glared at Parul. “What the hell is wrong with you, girl? It’s already 11:00. You still aren’t done with the sweeping? Never mind the sweeping for now. Chop up the onions and garlic. I have to finish cooking. Taleb bhai is going to be here at 12:30 to pick up Dadi Amma’s lunch. Hurry up!”
Saleha turned around and cursed the cat who was nuzzling at her feet. Parul laughed and said, “You’ve grown a temper, Salu bu.”
“Of course, because I have to work with a knucklehead like you,” Saleha snapped back.
“Take it easy,” said Parul, sauntering after Saleha into the kitchen. “What’s the hurry? Nobody in this household ever yells at us.”
“Don’t take it for granted,” Saleha grumbled. “I try to work by the clock. Dadi Amma is really ill, and her food needs to reach the hospital on time. Khalamma is very even-tempered, but if we disappoint her, she might get angry. Since Khalujan is away, everyone is tensed about things going wrong.”
“Relax,” Parul purred, “we won’t be late.” Saleha looked at her suspiciously, but said no more. “It’s okay, we have time,” she again said confidently, taking out the blender from the cupboard.
Saleha turned back towards the pots on the burner. She had lately started worrying about Parul. After all, it was Saleha who had brought her from the village. She hoped the girl would not fall into any mischief. Parul was only 15, but she looked 18, and Saleha had noticed that men had started looking at her differently in the last couple of years. Saleha always hovered protectively near Parul whenever the driver Taleb Miah was around. Not that either Parul or Taleb had shown any real interest in each other, but men and women are like fire and ghee, as her mother used to say. And Saleha had seen too many unpleasant things in her thirty years. Lately she had noticed Parul daydreaming a lot.
Suddenly she whirled around and asked, “Parul, have you been talking to that guy on the roof?”
“What guy?” Parul was startled out of her thoughts.
“That bloke with the beard.”
Parul stared blankly. Saleha twisted her face as she said, “Remember that young construction worker I told you about? He asked me about you once. Don’t talk to any of them, okay?”
A look of disdain crossed Parul’s delicate features. “Construction worker? What would I want with a common laborer?”
“That’s good.” Saleha concentrated on her cooking. “Just don’t pay any attention to them. These guys talk sweetly, but I’m sure they all have wives and kids in the village. Don’t be fooled, and don’t linger in the veranda.”
Parul laughed. “Don’t worry, bubu. I have no interest in any construction worker whatsoever.” She started humming to herself. Saleha was too relieved to notice.
Sharmin stared at the single raw potato under the small jasmine shrub in the veranda. What was a potato doing there? Her mother had a green thumb and liked having flowers and small shrubs in their veranda. But certainly not sickly-looking potatoes. She picked it up gingerly. It was greenish, and wrinkled on one side. It must have lain there for some days. She didn’t like to yell at the servants from the veranda. Besides, her mother was probably taking a nap, being tired from staying with Dadi all night at the hospital. She turned the potato around and almost tripped on the threshold. “I LOVE YOU” it proclaimed in bold capital letters. Sharmin looked around at the neighboring apartment complex and the adjacent construction site where another apartment complex was being built. There was nobody in the vicinity. The construction workers were probably off to lunch. And no one was out on the verandas in the blazing midday heat. She decided to have a word with Saleha.
Saleha’s eyes went round as she saw the potato in Sharmin’s hand. She had been with this family for over six years, and had never seen such a thing. Sharmin spoke calmly: “Please ask Parul if she knows anything about this. It might be one of those laborers.”
“Apamoni, it might just be a random potato.”
Sharmin looked at Saleha with irritation and amusement. “Are you saying that the potato grew out of our flower pots bearing this inscription? Saleha! Are you dumb? Obviously it was intended for someone. And I think it’s for Parul. In case you haven’t noticed, that girl is getting out of hand.”
Saleha remained silent. She felt warm with embarrassment. She suspected the same, but didn’t want to say so in front of Sharmin. “I’ll ask her, Apa.”
To Saleha infinite annoyance, Parul refused to utter a single word about the potato. She grew scarlet with rage, and Saleha surmised that this was not the first such messenger to have alighted on their veranda. Raising her voice she said, “I don’t know what you are up to, you wretched girl, but at least tell me that you are not sending out potatoes too.” Still no reply from Parul. Saleha grew exasperated. “Parul, try to understand. They will send you back home to the village if this continues.”
This time Parul raised her eyes and looked defiantly at Saleha. “Why should they send me back? I haven’t done anything.”
Saleha heaved a sigh of relief. “Do you know who it is from? Have you talked to the person?”
Parul looked outside the window. “I have not talked to anyone.”
Saleha started cursing the construction workers. “Those scoundrels, those scheming lowlife ruffians. Why do they disturb decent girls? They are universally immoral, those good-for-nothing laborers.” Then she stopped and looked at Parul again. “You are not to go to the back veranda anymore, okay? From now on, I will sweep that veranda myself.”
“On whose orders?” Parul shot back angrily.
“On my orders, and you shall obey.” Saleha’s voice was dangerously calm. “Or I will tell Sharmin Apa that you have been talking to the guy.”
Parul knew she had crossed the boundary, so she withdrew sullenly into the servants’ quarters without another word.
That afternoon Saleha gathered two more potatoes with inscriptions. On one she saw the name of Parul. There was no longer any doubt about whom the potato missives were directed towards. When Saleha went back to the kitchen, the intended recipient of the messages was busy chopping cauliflowers, green beans and carrots for dinner. She was about to open her mouth when the door bell rang. Saleha went to answer the door. On opening the door she saw their next door neighbour, Rokeya Khalamma. “Is anybody home? How is Khalamma doing?”
“Nobody is home except the children,” replied Saleha courteously. “Both Sharmin Apa and Khalamma are at the hospital. They are going to be bring Dadi Amma home tomorrow.”
The visitor’s face brightened. “Excellent,” she said, nodding. “We have good news too. Our Nipa got engaged yesterday. The gaye holud is in two weeks’ time.” Saleha now noticed that Shipa, Rokeya Khalamma’s second daughter, was standing behind her mother, and held a large box wrapped in golden paper. Rokeya Khalamma handed the box to Saleha. “I will come again,” she said. “Just don’t forget to tell them, okay?” She turned to her daughter. “Come, Shipa. We have to visit the Ramzanis.”
Saleha noticed that Shipa had another box, but it was smaller than the one she just received. Khalu held a high position with an international organization, and therefore, Rokeya Khalamma was always extra courteous to them. After they left, she put the box of sweets in the refrigerator. Meanwhile, Parul had come out of the kitchen. “Was that the fat Rokeya Khalamma from next door?” she asked.
“Yes,” Saleha said, hiding her irritation. “Nipa Apa is getting married.”
Parul peered at her. “Bubu, that girl is younger than you. Why do you call her Apa?” She giggled as she added, “Have you noticed the way she simpers? I suppose she will simper all the more now that she is getting married.”
Saleha looked at her sternly. “That’s the custom, Parul. Don’t forget your place. It’s high time that you learn some things.” Saleha paused. “I’ve noticed the way you answer back to Apamoni. She is older than you and the daughter of your mistress. Take care, girl.”
Parul shrugged. “I think you are too subservient,” she said and then gave a little cry of surprise as she felt her left cheek burning with a sharp pain. “You slapped me, Salu bu?” her eyes went wide with shock. Saleha had a look in her eyes that Parul had never seen before.
“Yes,” replied Saleha. “But I should have slapped you way earlier, when you first started to show these signs of disrespect. Sharmin is right. You’ve gone out of hand.”
Even in acute pain and shock, Parul noticed that Saleha, the epitome of propriety, had dropped “Apa” from Sharmin’s name. Saleha shook her head, “I don’t know what you’re up to, girl, but I can sense that it’s no good. Probably the best thing would be to send you home.”
The atmosphere of the house felt very different after Dadi Amma came back from the hospital. She was still very weak from the ordeal she has been through, but everyone was relieved as the immediate danger was over. Saleha was off to visit Reba, a girl who worked downstairs, in the household of the famous actress Chandrima. Surely she will bring back some savory tale, thought Parul. Reba came not from their village, but from the same district. Parul did not like her much. She was always smiling and everybody liked her, which irked Parul.
When Saleha came back, Parul was busy filing her nails. She tried to keep them as she has seen Sharmin do them. Rather than using the cheap nail polish that other girls like Reba or Romela used, she glossed coconut oil over her nails. It was something she learned from watching beauty tips on TV. They used olive oil, but coconut oil would have to do for now. When she married the prince of her dreams, she would use better things than olive oil. She couldn’t understand why she couldn’t have a drop of olive oil from Dadi Amma’s bottle now and then. She still remembered the one time she pinched some from Khalamma’s bathroom. Sharmin had almost caught her red-handed. The bottle of oil was an innocuous thing though, because she had permission to take it to rub on Dadi Amma’s feet. And the bottle in Dadi Amma’s room had run out that day. However, Parul had not only taken the olive oil, but also a bar of soap hidden in her shalwar, a fragrant bar that Khalujan had brought the last time he came home. Both Parul and Saleha received some trinkets when he returned, but not any of those fancy soaps. There were many of them tucked away in the cabinet in Khalamma’s bathroom. The fragrance was simply otherworldly. Even though Sharmin eyed her all over, she didn’t say anything. Parul pretended she didn’t notice. She still had the soap in her box as she did not dare to use it. If Saleha found out, she would kill her. Parul made a face. She still couldn’t understand why these little things were so important to Saleha. But then she had the soul of a servant. What would she say when she found out about the guy next door? Parul giggled to herself when she heard Saleha’s voice in the hall:
“Nipa Apa is getting married to a boy next door. Have you heard, Apamoni?”
“I heard he’s an engineer,” came Khalamma’s voice. “Who told you? And which next door?”
“Reba told me the whole story. Apparently, they used to communicate through the windows. He lives in the building behind ours.”
“That’s horrendous,” Sharmin exclaimed. “I thought Nipa had better sense than that.” She added something else in a lower tone that Parul could not hear clearly. But she heard Saleha’s voice protesting, “That’s not true, Apamoni. Parul never talked to any of those guys.”
“Sure,” came Sharmin’s jeering voice. “That girl is not just insolent, but a damn liar as well.”
When Saleha entered their small room, her face was flushed. She glowered at Parul, but did not say anything. Parul put away the things and asked in a pleasant voice, “So, Nipa’s is a love match? I am sure that Sharmin will never make one. She is pretty, and considers herself clever. But men don’t like her type,” she concluded.
“What do you know about men’s likes and dislikes?” Saleha was more surprised than annoyed.
“I know what I need to know,” said Parul with confidence. “I intend to marry well, bubu. I want to be a lady.”
Saleha gaped at her. Parul went on, “So tell me, who is this guy?”
“Ugh, bubu! The guy Nipa is marrying, of course.”
“He lives in the apartment complex behind ours. You might have seen him. Shamim Bhai—a cute looking guy.”
Parul stared at her. “What?” she whispered.
Saleha spoke wearily, “I don’t know what has gotten into you, Paru. These days you talk and act so strange! Anyway, according to Reba, he is extremely nice, even though he has a squint. So sometimes when he looks at you, it seems as if he’s looking at somebody else. I hope she will be happy. She is very unlike her mother—always very nice to helping hands. Roshida is always full of her praise….” Saleha rattled on, but Parul sat staring at the wall. He lives in the apartment behind ours. He has a squint.
Was there any other guy in that house? And Parul knew his name too—Shamim. She had often whispered that name in her reveries. But how could this be? Shamim was her Potato Prince!
Parul sat on the veranda looking forlorn. She had an English magazine in her hands. She only knew some basic English, which Khalamma had taught her despite the misgivings of Sharmin and Dadi Amma. Parul had often carried it to the veranda to impress her Prince. Now it seemed that he had never looked at her, but at that simpering Nipa. Who sent the potato missives then?
Right then another potato fell at her feet. Parul turned her head swiftly and saw the young construction worker. He was looking at her adoringly. “Parul,” he called softly. Parul just stared at him. He was a youngish man with soft beard, and a gamchha around his neck. He looked at the magazine in her hand and smiled. “You know how to read English?” Parul was lost for words. “I studied up to class six,” the man said again. “Then my father died. I had a step-mother, and I had to leave home.” Parul got up very slowly and walked over to the side facing the construction site. “Did you throw the potatoes?” Her voice was so hoarse that she barely recognized it herself. The man nodded.
“How did you know my name?” she asked.
“I heard them calling you. I’ve been watching you for quite some time now. I asked the other girl about you.” He grinned. “But she probably thinks I’m a lout.”
Parul kept on staring.
That’s how Sharmin found her standing on the veranda: as she later on described it, “lost in each other’s eyes.”
Her boxes were packed. Khalamma was very liberal. She had to dismiss her, but she still gave her three months’ salary. “We can’t take on such a responsibility, Saleha. Especially since the master of the house lives abroad. She is a teenage girl. What if some untoward incident takes place?” She shook her head. “She also looks more developed than a 15-year-old should. I think her parents should try to get her married.”
Saleha just nodded. Considering everything she also thought that it was a good piece of advice.
“If they can arrange a marriage, we will contribute. And please, when you come back, see if you can find another girl. Someone more manageable.”
Nobody said anything to Parul. This was her last night in Dhaka. She had not uttered one syllable since Sharmin had discovered her talking to the construction worker three days earlier.
Now suddenly Saleha found the girl lying beside her shaking convulsively. Parul was crying at last. Saleha tried to comfort her, “Hey, it’s not so bad. You are good looking, you know. I’m sure your parents will be able to find a good husband for you. Come on, surely you don’t like that ‘mistiri’ guy so much?”
Parul kept on sobbing as though her heart was broken. But she did not speak. How could she tell Saleha that she was not crying for the construction worker? Her vanity was terribly, terribly hurt. While Saleha blabbered on, Parul wept bitterly. She felt her heart would break for the Potato Prince that never was.
(Published first in Bengal Lights and republished with permission of the author.)
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. She has a PhD from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and her area of experties is nineteenth-century British fiction. Her short stories, non-fictions and translations have been published in Kitaab, Asiatic, The New Age, The Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, Bengal Lights and Six Seasons Review. Currently, she is also the Editor of The Daily Star Literature and Review pages.