Categories
Stories

House of the Dead

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.

Categories
Essay

Broken Glass and Shattered Dreams: COVID 19 in Bangladesh

By Sohana Manzoor

“Dance on broken glass;

Build castles with shattered dreams

Wear your tears like precious pearls.

Proud.

Strong.

Unshakable.”

–Anita Krizaan

At such a time as ours, I can identify with the first three lines, but not the last three. As I read the poem, I utter instead, “Ah, what dark tunnels are we crossing?”

I can’t believe that it has been six weeks since I have been to my office at the university. It has been more than a month since I was at my newspaper office. Things have been shifted online — without any of us having any preparation or training whatsoever. With the number of coronavirus affected patients rising rapidly in the country, sometimes I pinch myself to see if I am awake or if it’s only a nightmare. As I drift through one day exactly like another, I wonder if it is actually the beginning of a dystopic age. I recall all the science fiction books I have ever read and the movies that I have watched. This reality is more horrific than any of those because I am living in it. According to WHO, the worst is yet to come. And I wonder, I really wonder how my dear Dhaka city will look like after another month. How will Bangladesh feature in the world map after six months? Or next year this time how will the world function?

The governments across the world have declared lockdown and curfew of one kind or another. The situation in Bangladesh is really at a problematic stage. Being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, if not checked, the pandemic will cause a devastation that nobody has yet encountered anywhere. The close proximity and the number of people also are the reasons behind our tension—how to control this mass? The city of Dhaka is home to 160,000,000 people. Even though some have left for their hometowns, the larger portion still abides here. But we are so many in number and most live in such congested houses that it is difficult for them to continue indoors through days and nights. So, at the slightest chance, they slip out of their dilapidated shanties and cluster around half opened tea stalls and shops; they whisper to one another over a biscuit and half a cup of tea about the strange epidemic they can barely comprehend.

They look in apprehension and curiosity at a said narrow street that has been sealed because a family living there has been identified as COVID-19 victims. Then the police arrive with their batons and sticks and start beating people and they run to hide into their holes. Except for a few residential areas, this is the general scenario in Dhaka. People are prohibited from going to work, but who can take away their addas? The Bengalis can go without food but they cannot live without adda and gossip.

Hence, even though the government is dictating social distancing, ours is a culture that disapproves of such distances. The month of Ramadan has begun and for the first time in history, people are not going to the mosque for mass prayer. In all probability, the Eid Jamaat will not be held on the morning of Eid-ul-Fitr. But there is this group of religious leaders that continue to claim that if one dies after going to the mass prayer, they will go straight to heaven. No wonder that just over a week ago, around 100,000 people turned up at the funeral ritual of a senior member of Bangladesh political party, Khelafat Majlish. Some people will always benefit from any kind of disaster and such incidents only testify to that. One might ask, what can one benefit from such mass gathering that might result in extreme suffering and death? Well, the answer is — the ultimate objective of any system is to wield power over others. If it leads to death even, so be it; you have power over the dead and for some leaders at least, human life is expendable.

The biggest problem for us in Bangladesh right now is that in spite of the wide accessibility of the news channels, we are not fully aware of what we are dealing with. I was reading an article just this morning quoting the Director of Transparency International Bangladesh, who observes how the country has failed in protecting its citizens from Coronavirus. The system is so debased that even at this stage of the pandemic, some government officials are busy making money and compromising the situation by buying lower quality equipment for doctors and patients. The public announcement says that Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) has been bought for all doctors and medical staff, but in reality, those have been distributed selectively. The doctors outside of the capital city of Dhaka are mostly purchasing PPE out of their own pockets. Across the country, about 120 doctors have been affected by COVID-19, and among these only a handful are from those chosen hospitals.

There are all sorts of rumours, and because of those, people are ready to ransack hospitals as COVID patients have been admitted there. No wonder that a number of people are refusing to reveal that they are carrying the virus. When even the educated and conscious segment of the society does not know what lies ahead, one can only assume how the working class, who live from hand to mouth feels. Their daily living has been wrenched away from them by an unknown force.

Strangely enough, amidst this chaos a group of people are hopeful that this cannot last forever and something good will surely come up. Many will develop awareness of what they have done wrong. For me, that is only a distant possibility. More prominently looming in the near future are scarcity of jobs, lack of provision, budget cuts and trauma. How hopeful can we actually be when we know at heart that there is nothing bright and hopeful in the coming months?

Sitting at the heart of the city’s posh area, some are congratulating themselves as a few trucks of relief goods are distributed to some lucky ones. What about the rest of the country? How do we know that they are getting to eat? But then, some might counter that these people are half dead anyway and hence it would not matter much if they actually die now. It might sound atrocious and something we do not want to face, but it is the reality.

I used to be a workaholic. But I have not really been able to be productive since the lockdown began. This might be the beginning of a different set of thoughts for me. But I do not yet know what that might be exactly. I certainly am able to concentrate on work or creative writing. I am watching movies and keeping track of the COVID news. I fall asleep at odd hours and keep awake through the night.  

On rare moments, I dream of a cloudless blue sky and endless green pastures, of the not so crowded roads and streets of the late 80s and early 90s, of the people I have lost over the years. I might lose some more in the near future. How do I stand proud, strong and unshakable when the ground under my feet is giving away and I feel that I am drowning?

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are solely that of the author and not of Borderless Journal.

Categories
Stories

Parul and the Potato Prince

By Sohana Manzoor

I.

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.

II

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.

III.

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.”

IV.

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.

V.

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.”

VI.

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?”

“What 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!

VII.

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.”

VIII.

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.

Categories
Editorial

Hello World!

Welcome to Borderless — a journal that hopes to role out an invitation to all those who are willing to venture into the vastness of wonders, ideas and creativity. It seeks out thoughts that can soar above borders not just like birds but also like clouds. Clouds waft without pausing at differences, join together and bring water to the parched lands across all terrains as do writers and readers who look beyond differences. The writing will be like raindrops that create a downpour of love, tolerance, kindness, wit and humour. With a little soupçon of such values, we hope to unite into a world that can override differences, hatred, angst, violence and COVID-19. 

In these pages, we welcome hope for a future that makes us happy; we welcome all writers of all ages to come and revel in words and ideas and we invite readers to come and read and give us comments and write to us about what they would like to read at editor@borderlessjournal.com.  They are also welcome to try their hands at writing. In a world forced to segregate for the sake of survival, this is a way to connect with ideas. 

We start the journal with some input from the team from the editorial board, constituting a few writers who are outstanding and eminent in their own areas. You can read about the team in ‘About Us’ and savour some of their work under the different subheads: essays, reviews, stories and poetry. 

Dustin Pickering, somewhat of a rebel poet, a Pushcart nominee and a brilliant essayist, columnist and publisher, has contributed a scholarly essay on ‘Poets as Warriors’ — I love the idea even though I differ with some of his surmises. Maybe a war of words can convince people eventually that war with weapons is not the best way to maintain peace. Meenakshi Malhotra, a specialist in gender studies, bring us an essay on whether solidarity between women is possible. What do you think?

Namrata, a writer who hides behind fuchsia curtains and spills out lovely reviews, has a tempting review on a book edited by Sarita Jenamani and Aftab Husian — Silences between the Notes. Curious? Read and find out.

Sarita Jenamani, the PEN Austria general secretary, herself has contributed poetry — like the tinkling of crystal chandeliers evoking an evening in Vienna where she lives. Sohana Manzoor, the literature page editor in Daily Star, Bangladesh, has contributed a story, the title of which brings a smile — ‘Parul and The Potato Prince’ — reminded me a little of an O’ Henry in a Bangladeshi setting! 

Nidhi Mishra, a successful publisher of children’s stories, rolled out a fabulous piece on corona that hovers between an essay and a slice of life. It is in a grey zone — and that is why there is a new name for it — Musings. In Musings, you will also find Debraj, a popular columnist and an associate professor in Delhi University, with an unusual piece — again hovering between multiple genres. That is partly also what we hope do in Borderless, we explore genres and non-genre based writing to create new trends. 

Read it all and tell us what you think.

I look forward to Borderless as ‘your’ journal — a site that hosts contributions and looks for readership from all of you! 

Thank you all for your goodwill and friendship. 

Welcome again to a world without borders!

Mitali Chakravarty