Categories
Stories

A Cat Story

By Sohana Manzoor

Courtesy: Creative Commons

“O my poor Putli, why did I let you go out? O Allah, why did you take my Putli away?” Rupa heard Kohinur’s ma wailing as soon as she entered home. She sighed. Everyone in the house had been down since Putli disappeared about ten days earlier. Then three days ago, one of the guards of their apartment complex brought the news that he had seen Putli’s remains near the Niketan bazaar. Of course, nobody could be completely sure that it was Putli because the body had been lying there for some days and had partially decomposed. All they were certain of was that a black and white cat that looked like Putli had been killed. Rupa wanted to go herself but, in the end, could not bear the thought of seeing the rotten corpse of their cuddly family member. But since then their old maid, who took care of the cat, had been absolutely inconsolable.

Today Rupa could not take it any longer. She felt it was high time to find another cat, preferably a kitten; their house felt empty and desolate. Putli was an adorably frisky cat, about two years old. It was really fun to observe him jumping and playing with imaginary friends, raising his tail erect, or clawing at his own image glaring back from the mirror. Only recently he had started going out and was courting a cute white cat that Rupa had often seen reclining on the corrugated tin roof top of a nearby garage. He even had a fight with a street cat over his sweetheart. He had disappeared once before, but had come back after three days. This time probably he had ventured too far away from home and met his end.

It was summer; the schools were closed and Rupa’s two younger siblings were sulking in the house all day. Rupa studied at a private university and soon the semester would be over, and she resented the thought of residing in a house without any feline presence. There was always a cat in their home as far as she could remember. Even their father, who was a businessman and was busy all the time, seemed to have noticed Putli’s absence. Only yesterday Rupa had heard him saying, “That sofa by the window was Putli’s favorite spot; I can’t believe he’s gone.”

Rupa’s younger brother Yen had been trying to allure a neighborhood cat. Rupa did not like the looks of the cat he was inviting in though — looked more like a hobgoblin, greedy and sneaky with shrewd yellow eyes. She had occasionally seen it lurking in the back alley. It took the half-eaten drumstick that Yen had placed on the pavement, and ran behind a small pile of rubble. Rupa was certain that it would cause nothing but trouble. Besides, Kohinur’s ma hated any human or animal sneaking into her domain—the kitchen. She would surely wrinkle her nose and comment, “Couldn’t you get anything better than that susa bilai?[1]” But then nor could Rupa approve of the white fluffy cat Lira was nagging about the other day. She had seen one in the movie Stuart Little, and wanted a cat like Snowbell. Now that was a Persian cat and Rupa certainly did not want their entire family rolling in a bed of hair. She would rather have a deshi[2] regular cat than one of those overrated foreign ones.

The ornate clock in the dining room chimed 3 in the afternoon. If she started right away, she might get to Katabon and even return before evening. She was not very sure what kinds of kittens were available at the pet shops there, but it would not hurt to take a look. She grabbed a quick snack, filled her water-bottle and got out of the house. Her mother was taking a midday nap, and hence Rupa did not disturb her. But she knew her ma would not mind even if she brought in an entire brood of fluff balls. They were a family of cat lovers. Sifat, her best friend, often joked that they were surely Egyptians in some other life.

Rupa looked at the elevator which seemed to be stuck at the 6th floor. So, she took the stairs. On her way down, she saw the helping-hand from the fourth floor. The boy stared at her and as always Rupa found his look disconcerting. She had often wondered if the boy was mentally sound. She had never heard him speak, and on several occasions heard him wailing incomprehensibly in the stairwell until someone dragged him home. She noticed that he had a shopping bag in hand from where greens and the top of a gourd were peeping out. Obviously, he spoke, reasoned Rupa, otherwise how could he buy those?

Rupa’s way to the Katabon was uneventful other than occasional stops at the traffic lights. After paying the fare she started walking past the pet shops. The first one had birds and fish and aquariums of different sizes. After three shops she found one sporting caged dogs. But there were no cats.

At the next shop, the shopkeeper and his assistant showed her three black kittens claiming that they were Siamese cats. Rupa could not be sure if they were Siamese, but she was willing to bet that they were previously owned by some evil witch. They glared at Rupa with open hostility, their bright eyes burning like green fire. Rupa shook her head negatively and walked toward the next shop.

A boy of around 12 or 13 years of age beckoned her to a box like cage where she saw the kitten. It was small, surely not more than a few weeks old. The orange tabby looked up at Rupa with its large brown eyes and sneezed. She looked inside the box and saw another kitten, a black and white one, whimpering. She continued meowing piteously as Rupa turned to look at the tabby and took it from the boy. Dirty and malnourished, the tabby yet seemed absolutely adorable to Rupa.

“How much?” she asked.

“One thousand taka, apa[3]. It’s pure breed.”

“Sure,” Rupa grimaced. “It’s just a regular deshi cat, mixed breed at best.” The other kitten was still crying for its friend. Rupa calculated something quickly, and said, “Okay, I will accept your price, but I want that other kitten for free.”

The shop keepers started arguing, “But you won’t get two cats for only 1000! And they are first rate kittens.”

“Then I am not taking any,” she placed the tabby in the cage and turned away, even though her heart cried out for the poor kitten. She had not taken two steps when she heard the elder guy, “Okay, okay, they’re yours.”

Rupa took out two five-hundred-taka notes and asked, “Do you have any box I can carry them in?

“No boxes. But we’ll wrap them up for you.”

Wrap up living cats? Rupa waited to see what kind of wrapping they provided.

After about 5 minutes she was staring dumbfounded at the boy holding out the kittens in two brown paper bags. How he got them inside the paper bags so quickly, and without any tearing was a mystery to Rupa.

“Are you mad?” she spluttered. “I am going home in an auto-rickshaw. Those two will tear out of the bags in minutes. Get me at least a net bag or something.”

The boy put the paper bags of cats in a large fluorescent green net bag. Rupa took the bag cursing herself as well as the shopkeepers and hopped on a CNG auto-rickshaw for a hundred taka extra.

Surprisingly, the kittens were quiet in spite of the loud noise emitting from the auto-rickshaw and the vehicles in the surrounding streets. Rupa suspected that they were just too weak to protest. After about 10 minutes, however, Rupa heard a rustling sound, and she saw a small orange muzzle tearing from a brown bag. “Baghu,” thought Rupa. “I’ll call him Baghu.” It was a male cat, she had already noted, whereas the black and white one was female. She could be Nishi. Nishi made no sound at all, but Baghu kept on rustling and clawing at the paper bag until half of his body came out. “He does have spirit, after all,” thought Rupa. But she certainly did not want him out of his bag right now. So, she put the bags and cats all on her lap holding on to them tightly, praying all the while that they didn’t pee on her.

“What do you have in there, apa?” a child’s voice asked, and Rupa realized that the CNG had stopped at a traffic signal. Several curious street urchins with flowers, lemons, water bottles and other knickknacks were peering inside her auto-rickshaw. By now Nishi had also started pushing forward and mewing piteously. And the hawkers were obviously drawn by the sounds made by the kittens, and the commotion in the bags.

Rupa sighed and replied, “Don’t bother. Just go your way.”

But their numbers increased. “O my, you’ve got cats!” observed a flower girl with a merry laugh.

“No, no, those are kittens,“ said one boy of about seven or eight. He was selling mineral water. Two of his front teeth were missing. “How many do you have?”

“Two,” Rupa tried to maintain her gravity. “Now, GO!” her voice rose two octaves.

The children moved back a few steps only to get closer again. They were all grinning. “Look, look, there’s a red kitty.” “And a black and white one too!” “That one looks like Harun’s kitten!” Rupa could hear all kinds of comments.

Another CNG driver who had stopped right next to Rupa’s auto rickshaw, looked at her driver and asked, “What’s going on?”

“Young girl—taking two friends home. Only they have fur, tails, and they meow,” replied the CNG driver with a straight face.

Rupa went beet red. As the red signal turned green, she heaved a sigh of relief. As soon as the CNG started moving both Baghu and Nishi quieted down. Baghu started to nuzzle her, while Nishi looked up at her with dark hazel eyes. Her coloring reminded Rupa of Putli, her main reason for getting her. Nishi seemed much more docile though. Rupa suddenly felt very protective of the two kittens, and at the same time she could not help wondering why she did not feel the same way about human children. Why was it she had this urge to take home every kitten she saw in the streets? Then she amended that not every kitten perhaps but the cute ones surely. But those street children could be cute too. She remembered the ones that were commenting over her cats, particularly, the boy with the missing front teeth and another little girl with pig tails. How come she never felt like taking them home, wondered Rupa uneasily. She wondered about the boy who lived upstairs, the one she suspected was mentally disabled. Would her parents be equally welcoming to these children as they were to the cats?

Apa, which road?” Rupa realised they had reached Niketan. She directed the driver to road no 10. Their apartment was on the second floor. The old caretaker, Abu bhai[4] looked at the bundle in her hand, two small heads, one orange, and one black and white peeping out. He grinned, “You’ve got kittens, apa. That’s so wonderful.”

Rupa nodded and smiled.

And then Abu bhai said, “Something unfortunate has happened, apa. The crazy boy from the fourth floor fell down the stairs.”

“What crazy boy?” gasped Rupa. “Not that servant-boy they call Khokon, or Rokon?”

“Rokon. That very one,” replied Abu bhai.

Abu bhai said, “A maid from another flat had gone out to buy her paan[5]. And then when she came back, the boy was lying sprawled and motionless on one of the landings. Apparently, he fell down, and he has been taken to the hospital.”

Rupa remembered the greens and the gourd peeping out from the bag in the boy’s hand.

“Pets are replaceable, human beings are not,” she mused as she got on the elevator. She wondered if Rokon had parents. What parents could send such a boy work for other people?

“Where’s everybody?” Rupa shouted. “We have cats in the house!”

Yen came running, followed by Lira. Kohinur’s ma, who had opened the door, stood by with a smile on her face.

“They’re so small… and dirty!” commented Yen.

“But they’re cute!” cooed Lira.

“They need a shower and food,” observed their mother who had also joined them. “Kohinur’s ma, why don’t you take them to the kitchen and feed something? Give them a thorough bath tomorrow morning. They probably have lice on them.”

Rupa turned to her mother and asked, “Amma, did you hear about the servant-boy who fell down the stairs?”

Her mother looked surprised, “No. There was some commotion in the stairwell, but I didn’t realise that’s what happened.”

A few hours later the two newly acquired members of their family were playing on the living room carpet. They had licked themselves clean. Nishi was a bit shy and was sitting demurely on her haunches, but Baghu had already started scampering around. He was also a little bigger and probably older than Nishi. Everybody had approved of the names. Lira clapped her hands and laughed gleefully as Baghu did a summersault. Baghu looked up at Lira and did it again, and everybody laughed.

“He’s clever, isn’t he?” Kohinur’s ma observed.

“He actually understood that I liked his summersault!” Lira’s eyes went round. “Wow! Baghu, you’re amazing!” She picked the tabby up and kissed the top of his head and Baghu clung to her with all his four paws. Her mother shrieked, “Eeks! Don’t kiss them just yet! Let them have a shower tomorrow morning and you can do what you want.”

“But they are clean,” protested Lira.

“Not yet,“ Rupa shook her head. “And don’t carry them to bed with you tonight,” she warned. “You can snuggle with them after they have visited the vet’s office.”

At night Kohinur’s ma produced an old basket with rags of clothes for the two kittens to sleep in. Rupa recognised the basket that had belonged to Sisu, another cat they had lost years ago. She smiled as she said, “Something tells me that in a few days they will be sharing beds with Lira and Yen.”

Lira whooped and nodded vigorously while Yen displayed a huge toothless grin. Rupa again remembered the boy from the fourth floor. And the boy she had seen on the street, with his missing front teeth.

She brushed her teeth, changed into a loose T-shirt and pyjamas and went to bed. She dreamt of a gorgeous green meadow where children played and laughed, and they were all naked as the first day they were born. Rupa saw Yen and Lira and the street urchins along with Rokon. They all looked the same: clean and happy. Rupa heaved a sigh of contentment. Dreamland was perhaps the only place where her siblings could play with the likes of Rokon and the street-children without raising eyebrows and derision from any quarter.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor at the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. Currently, she is also a Deputy Editor of The Daily Star, a leading newspaper in Bangladesh.


[1] Gluttonous kitty

[2] Local

[3] Elder sister

[4] Brother – a polite way of addressing helpers

[5] Betel leaf

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

Categories
Interview

At Home Across Continents

In Conversation with Neeman Sobhan

Neeman Sobhan is an expat who shuttles between Italy and Bangladesh and writes. She has a knack of making herself at home in all cultures and all spheres. Having grown up partly in Pakistan (prior to the Liberation War in 1971), Bangladesh and completed her studies in United States, she has good words about time spent in all places. Her background has been and continues to be one of privilege as are that of many Anglophone writers across Asia. Her stories have been part of collections brought out to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bangladesh.

One of her most memorable stories from her short story collection Piazza Bangladesh, located around the 1971 war takes on an unusual angle, where the personal seems to sweep the reader away from the historic amplitude of the event into the heart-rending cries of women at having lost their loved ones in a way that it transcends all borders of politics, anger and hate. The emotional trajectory finds home in a real-world event in the current war. The fate of innocent youngsters dying while not being entrenched in the hatred and violence wrings hearts as reports of such events do even now. I find parallels in the situation with the young Russian soldier whose mother did not know he was in Ukraine and who was killed while WhatsApping his mother his own distress at being there. And yet her stories stay within certain echelons which, as she tells us in the interview, are the spheres that move her muse.

When and how did you pick up a pen to write?

I have always written. The written word has always held a powerful fascination for me, which has not dimmed at all. From my childhood through my teens, I was a voracious and precociously advanced reader, as well as a passionate writer of poetry, and a keeper of a daily journal. My poetry was regularly published in The Pakistan Observer’s Junior page.  I don’t dare look at them now to even assess whether they were embarrassingly bad or surprisingly good enough to be salvaged and resurrected now! I preserved them as the earliest evidence of my continuing evolution as a writer and a poet today.

During those early days, I also won the first prize in a national essay writing competition sponsored by the newspaper. The Pear’s Encyclopedia I won still holds a precious place on my bookshelf.

English was my favourite subject in school and college, and I knew I would study English literature at university. I started out at Dhaka University in 1972 but by some perverse logic, I actually enrolled in the newly opened International Relations department and not the English Department (in which I had applied and been accepted). The reason, I now recall is because the English department was over-flowing with students, while the International Relations department was something exclusive and admitted a handful of students. However, after a few months I realised I had made a disastrous choice.

Meantime, my marriage was arranged, and I was whisked away to Marlyland, U.S. My husband, Iqbal, an ex-CSP officer (the Civil Service of Pakistan) was a Ph.d student of Economics at the University of Maryland, and in no time I enrolled as an undergraduate student and blissfully went on to study English and Comparative Literature, graduating eventually with a Masters in English Literature.

That I was going to be a writer was for me, even as a teenager, like a pre-ordained and much desired fate. I never wanted to pursue any other vocation.

What gets your muse going? 

Anything, and everything.  A view, a scent, an overheard conversation, a line of poetry, a memory……If I’m angry and seething, I write; if I’m sad or grieving, I write; if I’m joyous or ecstatic, I write; if I feel aa surge of spiritual bliss, I write; if I’m confused, I write. What form that writing takes is unpredictable. It could become a poem, or a paragraph in my notebook, which later could be part of my fiction, or a column. I wrote a regular column for the Daily Star of Bangladesh.

Writing is my food and nourishment, my therapy, my best friend, my passion. The writer-Me is the twin that lives inside me. It’s my muse and guide that defines my essential self. I am a contented wife of almost 50 years of marriage, a mother of two sons, and a grandmother of four grandsons (aged 5-4-3 & 2). These gratifying roles nourish my spirit, give me joy and inspiration, teach me lessons that help me grow as a human being. But my writer-self exists in its own orbit, proceeding on its solitary journey of self-actualisation, following its inner muse.

You have written of Italy, US and Bangladesh. How many countries have you lived in? 

Yes, I have lived in Italy, US and Bangladesh, which makes 3 countries. But, in fact, I have lived in 4 countries.

Remember that I was born not just in the undivided Pakistan of pre-71, when present day Bangladesh was East Pakistan, but I was actually born in West Pakistan, present day Pakistan, in the cantonment town of Bannu, near the borders of the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan, (formerly, the NWFP or NorthWest Frontier Province, presently KPK or Khyber Pakhtun-Khwa). Although my parents were Bengalis from Dhaka, my father’s government job (not in the army but under the Defence department, ‘Military Lands and Cantonments Services’) meant being posted in both wings of the then Pakistan. So, during my childhood and girlhood, I grew up in Karachi (Sindh), Multan and Kharian (Punjab) and Quetta (Balochistan). As a family of five siblings and our adventurous mother, we always accompanied our father on his official tours, by car or train, over the length and breadth of that country.

In the English medium school I was enrolled in, I had to choose Urdu as the vernacular subject, since Bengali was not taught in West Pakistani schools, though the opposite was not true! Anyway, I have no regrets. I am proficient in both Urdu and my mother tongue Bangla/Bengali, which I learnt at home from my mother, who in Quetta actually set up a small Bengali learning school for Bengali Army officers’ children. I am proud of the fact that I carried my mother’s tradition when I taught Bengali to Italians at the University of Rome, many decades later!   

What is it like being an immigrant writer? Which part of the world makes you feel most at home? Why? 

To start with, and to be honest, I do not really consider myself a true immigrant — someone who bravely and definitively leaves his familiar world and migrates  to another land because he has no other options nor the chance or means to return; rather, I feel lucky to be an ex-patriate — someone who chooses to make a foreign country her home, with the luxury of being able to revisit her original land, and, perhaps, move back one day. In fact, I have dual nationality, and am both an Italian citizen, and continue to hold a Bangladeshi passport. I might be considered to be an Italian-Bangladeshi writer. I consider myself a writer without borders.

I feel equally at home in Italy and in Bangladesh. Before the pandemic, my husband and I would make an annual trip to Dhaka for two months from December to February end, since my classes started in early March. Presently, I am back in Dhaka, after two almost apocalyptic years.

Despite the continuing hurdles of mastering the Italian language and trying to improve it constantly, we love our Roman home as much as our Dhaka home. Still, living away from ones’ original land, whether as an expatriate or an immigrant, is never easy, beset by nostalgia for what was left behind and the struggle to create a new identity of cultural fusion within the dominant and pervasive culture of a foreign land. But in this global age, it’s quite usual to live in a mix of cultures and live in a borderless world where ones national or cultural identity is not so clear cut. (I have a daughter-in-law who is Chinese, and another who is half-English, half-Thai! And my grandchildren are the heirs to a cornucopia of cultures and are true global citizens). Nevertheless, in the four and a half decades of my living away from Bangladesh, the eternal quest for that illusory place called home has shaped the sensibility that nourishes my creativity and compels me to write. Often, it’s the pervasive and underlying theme in my columns, stories and poetry. There is a poem of mine, “False Homecoming” which underlines the poignant sense of displacement a person can feel, not in a foreign land but in ones’ own motherland, or the version from the past. After all, many people who live away, exist in a time-warp.So, no matter which part of the world you feel at home in, it’s temporary. For me, as a writer between countries and homes, it is an external and internal odyssey.

It is the endless journey of a writer in constant evolution.

Tell us a bit about your journey. 

I realised early on that our real world being increasingly borderless, it’s not a tract of land that makes me feel at home. It’s my writing. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once said, “Words became my dwelling place.” This has always resonated deeply with me, because for me, too, language and literature have been my sanctuary and true homeland. I have lived in that comfort zone at the heart of my creativity, imagination and writing: my dwelling place of words.

Of course, there are as many shapes to the sheltering place of language as there are literary forms. My nest of words was also feathered by my particular exigencies, followed a particular route and journey.

Though I speak various languages, my mother tongue is Poetry. For as far back as I can remember I have always written poetry, like writing in a journal, considering it to be the shorthand of my heart, a secret language. I am a reticent person, and there are writers like me who are content to use writing, whether poetry or prose, as a tool for self-exploration, self-knowledge, self-definition, with no thought of being published. At least, not my personal poems.

Yet with poetic irony, despite being a private person, my career as a writer started when I was jettisoned into that most public form of literary expression: the world of weekly column writing. At the urging of a friend, the editor of the Bangladeshi national daily The Daily Star, I turned into a public chronicler of the minutiae of my world, my life and times. Now I discovered my professional language, my father tongue if you will, the language of prose and my journey as a writer started.

When one reads your writing, it is steeped in a number of cultures. Which culture is most comfortable for you while writing and which one for living? 

There’s no place as beautiful and pleasurable to live in as Italy. Except for two or three months of winter, the climate during the rest of the year is perfect; the natural beauty and historical and artistic richness are unsurpassable, the food is delectable whether it’s based on nature’s bounty or the simple elegance of its distinctive cuisine. But for a writer who is also a housewife, the most comfortable country to write in, for me, is Bangladesh. With the culture of household helps abounding, I often get more writing done in two months of living in my Dhaka apartment than a whole year in Rome. My domestic staff are like family to us, and valued parts of our life. They sustain us and we sustain them, helping them educate their children to stand on their own feet. I miss this support network in Italy.

What are your favourite themes and your favourite genre? Expand on that a bit. 

My favourite genre to both read and write is the short story, poetry, humorous essays, travel writing and insightful book reviews. I read fewer novels now, and I have been writing and struggling to finish my first novel for years. I suspect, this is because I am temperamentally more attuned to the short sprint dash of producing a discrete work of imagination than the long-distance run of a lengthy work. But I am determined to conclude this opus before it becomes an unfinished relic.

I never approach fiction-writing through themes. But in non-fiction prose writings, like essays and articles for columns, I love to write about certain topics, or about books, places, and people, from all walks of life. I also love to write about nature, food, history and traditions, about how to improve our world, our lives and our relationships; and the happy, hopeful moments of life. As far as reading goes, I love reading about travel, love and friendship, human compassion, and anything with a happy ending.

You seem to have centred much of your work on people who are affluent. What about the rest — especially the huge population who serve the affluent? Have you written on them? Tell us why or why not.

That is an incomplete picture, and a wrong perception of my writing. To start with, as a writer I am more interested in the richness of the inner lives of human beings, and less so in the outward, economic and class differences. To me, no one is merely affluent or poor, but human and worthy of a compassionate gaze. The diversity and motivations of characters, whichever strata of society they belong to moves my imagination. I do not write to either preach or disseminate ideas of social justice or to right wrongs, but to explore and present the world we live in, in all its complexities and subtleties, the joys and ugliness, the small dreams and grand passions, the disappointments and triumphs of individuals and generations. I like to delve into the psychological or political motivations of human behaviour, especially within the domestic sphere, the family, an ethnic community.

I have many stories about those who serve or are not from privileged classes. My story ‘A Sprig of Jasmine’ is about a sweeper woman at a school in Bangladesh. Then there is the story ‘The Farewell Party’ about a temporary domestic help in a Bangladeshi home in Rome, suspected of stealing. I also have a sequel to that which explores the life of the same Bengali help now working as a nurse-companion to an old Italian woman.  These and many more are awaiting to be published soon in another collection.

But I never consciously choose a subject or set out specifically to tell the story of an under-privileged, oppressed, or marginalised person. It can happen that the story turns out to be about them, but for me a story reveals itself randomly, through an image or scent or a view or an overheard conversation, once I witnessed a slap being delivered, etc, and I follow its trail till it leads me to an interesting bend where it starts to shape into a story. I never know how a story will start or end. It grows in organic but unpredictable way. That is the challenge, and adventure of writing a story.

For example, one of my most newest stories, titled ‘The Untold Story’, (published in a recent anthology for Bangladesh’s 50th anniversary, When the Mango Tree Blossomed, edited by Niaz Zaman), is two parallel tales of two Birangonas (‘war heroines’ or raped victims during the Bangladesh liberation war ), but it came to me more as a way to explore the craft of storytelling, which is something that always engages me: how a story is narrated, as much as what the narrative is about.

By and large, I like to write stories about the world I know, and the people in my own milieu because no one writes about the expat society of Europe. I like to write about my world in all its details and extrapolate from its larger truths about humanity in general.

Jane Austen wrote about the landed gentry and her corner of England, but the stories ultimately reach our hearts not merely as stories of the affluent but of human foibles. John Updike wrote about his American suburban world. Annie Proulx writes about Wyoming. Alice Munro about the middle-class world of her neck of the Canadian world. Henry James focused on American aristocrats. But what is human and vulnerable, or worthy or unworthy, transcends class barriers. People are interesting, subtle, unpredictable, noble or wicked, no matter whether they are affluent or of straitened means. Tagore’s tales of women trapped in their roles in rich households are just as moving as those among the poor and underprivileged.

There are plenty of writers with a sociologist’s background who can chronicle the lives of the downtrodden whom they meet. I applaud them. My younger son works with the Rohingyas; my brother-in-law, a doctor worked for years with children of addicts. They have their stories to tell. I have mine. I’m interested in humanity, wherever I find them.

In the little I have read of your stories, Bangladesh is depicted in a darker light in your narratives — that it is backward in values, in lifestyles etc. Why? 

I don’t know which particular story or stories you have in mind where you felt that this impression was consciously created. Unless the story was indeed about a backward area, like the dingy alleys and neighbourhoods of old Dhaka in the 60’s and 70’s. Or, the murky values resulting from the explosion of wealth and the rise of corruption, undermining civic and ethical values in the rampantly urbanised zones.

In which case, it’s an unavoidable fact and not a depiction.

However, since I write more in a nostalgic light about Dhaka past rather than the reality of the present, I actually have not really written about the darker sides of the country; and which country or society does not have its seamy side. A good question would have been why I have not depicted Bangladesh in a darker light as contemporary writers of Bengali fiction do, dealing courageously with sinister aspects of politics and corrupt moral values at every level of society.

There is much in the Bangladeshi culture that we are proud of, beautiful traditions, and so much beauty in our natural world. I like to weave these into my narrative. So, I’m surprised that you found my stories to be dark.

 What are your future plans?

One of my most urgent projects is to get my novel-in-progress published.

I’m also planning to come out with another collection of stories, and a collection of my columns on travel, and an Italian and Bengali translation of my fiction.

So far, my three published books, and all the stories that have appeared in various anthologies are just a few milestones but do not define my journey as a writer. Daily I grapple with the insecurities of a writer, and daily I learn new things that help me grow towards being the writer I aspire to be. It’s still a long way to a full flowering, but each passing day I dabble in words, I feel the creative petals unfolding, slowly but surely.

Thank you for your time.

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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

Categories
Stories

The Doll

By Sohana Manzoor

A veiled woman, painting by Tagore. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Aronee closed the door behind her. Softly, very softly. She was always soft. “Soft”, “polite”, “quiet” were the epithets her friends and relatives used to describe her. As a child, a teenager, a young woman, she was always the good one, the sacrificing one. Now as a mature woman of forty-two, she is still considered a caring wife, a loving mother and a concerned daughter. As a teacher, she is excellent and well-loved.

She looked at the mirror in her bathroom. Her hair was still raven black. A slight frown etched her smooth forehead. But it’s her eyes that signalled that something was very, very wrong. Her eyes that are usually calm and reassuring were dark and stormy. Aronee could not remember that she ever felt so furious and mad in her entire life. She closed her eyes and counted up to 10 and opened her eyes again. It did not help.

She turned the tap and let the water run. She looked at the running water and tried to think straight. How did it come to this? When? How? What did she do wrong? She thought of herself as a toddler. She was the doll of her family. They always told her so. Sweet-tempered, Aronee never had a tantrum like her other siblings or cousins. She just stared at Ashik, her elder brother, who yelled at the slightest discomfort, or Alena, her younger sister who screamed incessantly when her whims were not fulfilled. As she grew older, she learned to be patient, accepting things rejected by Ashik or Alena. Sometimes, she did try to complain, but her mother told her reproachfully, “Aren’t you a good girl, Ronee?” Being a good girl sucked, she often thought, when Alena got away with the best things, and she had to do with the leftovers. But Aronee was beautiful. Whatever she wore, however she dressed, she appeared elegant, composed and lovely. And Alena was forever jealous of her elder sister.

Her only comfort was when she heard her mother say to others, “She is such a doll, my Aronee. She never complains.”

Her grandmother said, “Be patient, my girl. Allah will be good to you.”

What was the definition of good, and what was bad? Wondered Aronee unmindfully, trying to catch the running water in her fingers. But the water slipped away as did time.

*

“Ronee, Ronee,” the whimpering voice of her sister carried over from the past. She refused to call her “apa” as she was only 15 months younger. Aronee raised her eyes from the book she was reading to see a pouting Alena. “I can’t find my white petticoat. Can I borrow yours?”

“No,” replied Aronee swiftly.

“Why not? And you know Ammu will tell you to give it to me, if I tell her,” said Alena half-laughing. “She hates it when I screech and yell.”

Aronee looked at her sister witheringly. “The last time you took my blue jamdani, you tore it at the bottom. Aren’t you ashamed?”

Alena went quiet. And then she looked up at her elder sister smiling, “You are so good, Aronee. And you preserve your things so well. I just looked at the white starched petticoat of yours and felt that mine looks crumpled and dirty.” She changed her tone and wheedled, “Please, Ronee, can I have your white petticoat? Pleease?”

Aronee sighed. “Okay, go ahead. Just be careful, okay?” Alena jumped up and kissed her sister and ran off gaily, “You’re a doll, Ronee.” Aronee shook her head and concentrated on the mystery novel she was reading.

*

Ashik had gotten into the most horrendous possible mess. He got his cousin Shabanm pregnant while being engaged to his girl-friend Myra. He was not even particularly perturbed by it—putting the entire fault at Myra’s door. “Well, she said she would not sleep with me before marriage,” he had shrugged. “And Shabnam was available; more than willing actually.”

Then there was pandemonium.

Myra cut off from him, and for the first time in his life Ashik was forced into giving in. His father went livid, and Aronee heard him yell at his wife, “It’s all your fault. You never reprimanded him for anything. Now look what has come to your darling boy. If he doesn’t marry Shabnam, I will throw him out of the house without a penny. And I mean every syllable.”

Aronee’s mother tried to speak up, “Shabnam is not an innocent. She seems to have no …” she could not finish as her husband said ominously, “Don’t. Whatever you’re about to say, don’t.” He paused and added, “She is MY sister’s daughter. You wouldn’t have acted this way if she was YOUR niece. Just make sure that he marries her. If he does not, you too can move out of the house.” He stormed out of the room.

Aronee was listening to the hubbub and wondered at Ashik’s audacity. She had to agree with their father. It was always like this — he could get away with murder with his mother as his staunch supporter.

When Aronee approached her mother, she was in tears, “How can Shabnam be my son’s wife? And she got pregnant out of wedlock too! Oh, Allah, my poor son! How would I know that it is his even?” Then she turned to Aronee, “Ronee, tell your father that Shabnam has another relationship. He will believe you.”

Aronee stared at her wailing mother and realised how pathetic and unscrupulous she was. Would she have been able to say the same things if it was Alena, or her? Aronee felt ashamed. She said quietly, “Bhaiya has already admitted to his part in the matter. And even if he did not, I would not say such a blatant lie. Amma, how can you? What if it was me, or Alena?”

Aronee’s mother sprang up. “My daughters would never bring such shame on the family. I have raised them differently,” she said proudly. “It’s all Rahela’s fault. Like mother, like daughter.”

“And yet,” thought Aronee sadly, “Your son did it? How did you bring him up?”

But then he was a son, the only son of her parents.

*

On her wedding day Alena winked from under her bridal veil, “Aren’t you happy now? I won’t be bothering you anymore.”

So, Alena was getting married before Aronee, at the age of twenty-one—to the man of her dreams. No, to the man of their dreams. Aronee had loved him in silence for years, but Alena was vocal, and she claimed him. Aronee did not know back then that Swaron also loved her, and not the sister he was getting married to. But since Aronee kept silent knowing about Alena’s infatuation with him, he did not know what to think. Meanwhile, Alena went on pestering him, and he gave in.

Aronee looked at her sister critically, “The make-up is a bit too much. They have virtually white-washed you!”

“Let it be. Let me be fair for one day,” Alena rolled her eyes. And then sighed, “You will always be the more beautiful one, Ronee.”

Aronee tsked, “You are getting married to the man you love. What more do you want?”

Suddenly Alena whirled around, “You,” she whispered. “I’ve always been so jealous of you, Ronee. Everybody loves you more. Even our good for nothing big bro thinks you’re an angel. Can you teach me how to be like you?”

Aronee sighed, “There you go again! You’ve been blabbering like this for the last three weeks. What’s got into you?”

Alena threw her arms around her elder sister and started bawling. “I’m so sorry Ronee. I know I’m a terrible sister! Please, forgive me. Oh, please.” It took a while for Aronee to calm Alena down. “Hey, you’re my li’l sister, remember? Annie, what’s wrong? We all love you so much… look at me. Your make up will be ruined in no time now.”

Finally, Alena calmed down and allowed Aronee to fix her make-up.

But the perky, lively girl that got married one summer evening lost her spirit soon. Everybody noticed the change. Whenever she came to visit her parents and, she seemed down and pale. No, Swaron was attentive. Never mistreated her or said anything nasty. But nor did he look at Alena the way he looked at her sister. His countenance lit up whenever Aronee was in the room. He gave Aronee the due respect of an elder sister-in-law. But Alena knew. She had always known. Only she thought that like everything else she could make Swaron love her. She failed miserably.

If Swaron was abusive and complaining, she could have said something. But he did everything correct. He paid her attention, took her to shopping, dinner. They had gone on honeymoon. And all the time, she felt that his heart was in an impenetrable glass box. She could see it but could not touch it. Once, she had pleaded with him, “Swaron, you married me. Not Aronee.”

Swaron looked at her, his eyes like glass, “Yes?”

“Can’t you love me a little?”

“I told you long ago that I love your sister, not you. Still, you persisted — you threatened to tell your family that I had compromised you. I warned you that I would never love you. Why are you complaining now?”

Alena looked at him helplessly. Yes, he had told her, but she thought time would change things. They change in movies. Now over a year into the marriage, nothing changed.

Yes, Alena confessed all these to her sister, finally, bitterly. By that time, she, too, like her brother had caused a huge uproar. Out of anger and frustration, she had run away with a neighbour, who had been trying to catch her attention for some time. Their father had a heart attack and became an invalid. It was Aronee who was strong during those days, who took control of the household. Her brother’s marriage also did not work out; after two years of stormy conjugal life, Ashik and Shabnam parted ways. And stupid Alena had said, “You can marry Swaron, if you want.”

Aronee shook her head, “Are you insane, Alena? Or do you pretend to be dumb?”

“Why not?” sniffed Alena. “You too love him.”

“Love is not the most important thing in the world,” retorted Aronee. “Can you imagine what will happen to our family? How people will talk?”

Alena just stared at her. Aronee had said simply, “The paths of heart and duty are not always the same.”

She never thought otherwise, until today. She looked at the woman in the mirror. “What did I do wrong, can you tell me?” she whispered.

*

Aronee married, of course, but according to her parents’ choice. Her husband Taufique was an engineer from a respectable family. They were not in love when they married, but they came to a good understanding. They even came to care for each other, had a good partnership—something most marriages lack. They had two children, Abeer and Trina.

Now, after 14 years of steady marriage life Aronee just realised that all she stood for had been  a sham. Wasn’t there anything called stability and truth in life?

*

Aronee waited. She sat in the veranda and looked calmly through the bright orchids she had planted and the ivy that ran down the red brick wall. The place she had called home for over a decade was not her home after all. The course of her life was crystal clear.

*

When Taufique came home late at night, the apartment was seemingly empty. There was no sound of Abeer and Trina, or even Aronee. He had informed that he would return after a business dinner. So, the lights in the dining room were turned off. Nothing unusual. But for some reason he felt something different. He stood at the door of the bedroom that he and Aronee shared. Yes, she was there as she always was. Suddenly, he felt guilty. He has been feeling uneasy for some time now. He realised that he needed to talk about Shuvra except that what could he say? That Shuvra made him feel like a man? That he felt like taking care of her? Or that Aronee was so strong and capable that she made him feel less than he was? The woman who sat in the middle of the room, looked up and Taufique’s heart gave a little leap. Her coffee brown eyes were calm, but there was a tremendous sadness in them.

Taufique walked in, faltered, and stopped. Didn’t he tell Shuvra that Aronee would be devastated if she knew? Instead, why did he feel so weak? And helpless?

Aronee looked at him steadily and he realized that no confession was necessary. He felt like a little boy caught at stealing jam.

“Why?” whispered Aronee. When he did not answer, she simply said, “Abeer and Trina are visiting their nanubari. I guess, it will become temporarily permanent.” She paused and said, “I stayed on to tell you that I am leaving. I will file a case for divorce. You can contend if you like. But considering everything I hope you won’t.”

“You’re taking Abeer and Trina? Just like that?” Taufique’s voice was a hoarse whisper.

Aronee was calm. “You want them with your future wife?”

“They are my children,” he choked, feeling completely unmanned. Aronee may not like Shuvra, but Shuvra was raising her two younger siblings by the hand. She knew all about children. But Taufique suddenly realised that the sentence he had been rehearsing for many months was pretty dumb.

“They are mine too,” responded Aronee.  “I certainly won’t allow my son and daughter to be raised by a whore.” The emphasis on the last word shattered Taufique. Why didn’t he ever think that Aronee would object to him having the children? Or maybe because he was so absorbed in Shuvra, he never examined his stance about them. Now he knew that Aronee would not budge from her position. Good girls like Aronee acquiesced most of the time. But when they finally take on a standing, they do not give away an inch.

“You can’t leave. Not like this,” he almost whimpered.

Aronee turned away from him and picked up her large brown bag. She was wearing a deep blue striped handloom saree. Her face betrayed no emotion.

“You can contact me at my mother’s house number. Just don’t try to call me on my cell phone. I don’t want any alimony. But Abeer and Trina still will need you. I hope you will act accordingly.”

The door closed softly. But to Taufique it seemed like a bang.

The doll was finally awakened.

Who exactly was Shuvra?

Taufique felt like a dead man.

*

Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English and Humanities, ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star. This story was previously published in Six Seasons Review.

Categories
Slices from Life

Pohela Boishakh: A Cultural Fiesta

Sohana Manzoor shares the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh on April 14th, pausing on the commonality and differences with Poila Baisakh, the Indian version of Pohela Boishakh celebrated in the Eastern part of India

Happy & Prosperous New Year or ‘Shubho Nabobarsho’ in Bengali script

“Shubho Nabobarsho” (happy and prosperous new year) is the traditional greeting for the Bengali new year. The upcoming April 14 will herald the beginning of the Bengali year 1428 in Bangladesh, but in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, Odisha and parts of Assam it will be the 15th of April. In Bangladesh, Pohela Boishakh is one of the biggest occasions of celebration, next to perhaps the two Eids.

Whereas the celebrations of Pohela Boishakh is now a regular thing, its history is somewhat unclear. According to most historians, the Bengali year or Bangabda was introduced by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. In those days, agricultural taxes were collected according to the Hijri Calendar. But then the Hijri calendar is a lunar calendar and naturally, it did not coincide with the agricultural year. The tax collecting time was not a time when the peasants and farmers could pay the taxes. It only added to the confusion of the people who tilled the land in various capacities. To streamline the tax collection, Akbar ordered a reformation of the calendar. As a result, in 1584 Bangabda was born. But the year started from 963, the Hijri year it was modeled on. According to some historians, however, it was adopted by another Muslim ruler called Hussain Shah of Bengal. There is yet another group that alludes to Shashanka, a seventh-century King of Bengal, for inventing Bangabda. It is quite possible that it existed before Akbar’s time and the Mughal Emperor reinvented it with the help of his royal astronomer and other pundits of his court.

An interesting aspect of Bangabda is that the names of the months were different in those times. The story of how the months of Farwardin, Urdibahish and Khordad became Baishakh, Jyoshthyha and Ashar is lost to us. But we do know that just as he had helped in modernizing the Bengali language, Dr. Muhammad Shahidullah helped in modernizing the Bengali year. Partially accepting his reformative suggestions, the Bangla Academy saw that the first six months had thirty-one days each and the last six, thirty. Hence there is no further confusion about which day of the Gregorian calendar Pohela Boishakh coincides with. In Bangladesh, it is always 14 April. But in West Bengal and other parts of India, it can be either 14 or 15 of April.

When the Bengali new year was first introduced, the most important activities on the first day of the year involved halkhata, opening of a new book for zamindars who would treat their tenants with sweets. On the last day of the old year, there would be Chaitra Sankranti, a day celebrating the end of the year. Actually, in rural areas, this day was more colourful than Pohela Baishakh. Charak Puja, a Hindu festival honouring the god Shiva is central to this celebration. The actual puja used to take place on the midnight of Chaitra Sankranti, and it was a very special kind of ritual and not too many people even know about it anymore. The preparation would start a month ahead of the actual puja and a total of twelve devotees would take part in it. There would be different kinds of festivities through the day, and snacks like puffed rice, ground gram called chhatu,  dry sugary sweets like khoi, murki, batasha, kodma, and many varieties of leafy vegetables would be available. In today’s Bangladeshi scenario, Chaitra Sankranti has almost disappeared except in some distant villages. Only lately, some initiatives are being taken in Dhaka to reintroduce the fair, even though it looks like any other fair and very different from the original Chaitra Sankranti.

With urbanization, the more secular Pohela Boishakh became popular. However, some elements from Chaitra Sankranti have been integrated in Baishakhi celebration. For example, there are fairs that still showcase puffed rice, khoi, murki, batasha and kodma. There are products made by rural artisans. Performances on musical instruments like ektara, dotara and dhol by rural artists are show cased. Riding the nagardola (a mini and wooden version of the Ferris wheel, reminiscence of the charak) is a central attraction of the fair.

It is impossible to conceive of any Bengali festival without food. The first food item that comes to mind regarding Pohela Baishakh, is hilsa fish. Different preparations of mouth-watering taste are prepared with hilsa. Then there are panta bhat (fermented rice) with green chili, all kinds of bhartas (mashes) starting with potatoes to tomatoes, sweet pumpkins, lentils, beans, shrimps and different types of fish, chutneys, shutki (bitters), authentic Bengali sweets, savoury snacks like fuchka, chotpoti and even traditional ice-creams, kulfi. Bigger cities find fairs and programmes in almost every locality.

Chhayanaut, an institution devoted to the propagation of Bengali culture, started celebrating the Bengali Nababarsha under the Ramna Botomul (a historic banyan tree) in 1967. Since the Liberation War of 1971, Pohela Boishakh has grown into a national festival for all Bangladeshis irrespective of religions. In Dhaka, the Pohela Boishakh procession begins from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Dhaka. The students start taking preparation for the procession from days ahead. They make masks and banners and wear elaborate costumes. This is known as the festive Mangal Shobhajatra, translated procession showcasing good fortune. In 2016, this festivity organized by the Faculty of Fine Arts was listed as UNESCO cultural heritage. Specific roads around Dhaka city are decorated with white and red alpanas, elaborate designs made with rice flour mixed with water.

At the break of dawn on Pohela Boishakh, people gather at the Ramna batamul festival ground. The day starts with singing the famous Tagore song, “Esho he Boishakh*” along with many others. The whole day is spent in celebration. Radios and TV channels air special programs on the day too. People dressed in white and red and other colourful attire flock around the city. It is also observed as a national holiday and a fun-day for everybody.

Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor of English at ULAB. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.

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