By Sohana Manzoor
She was as beautiful as a fairy-child. Her face was angelic as was her nature. She did not know jealousy and during the days of my childhood in that large palatial house of my stepfather, she was my only friend. She shared all that she had with me. Or, rather, she tried to share. Her mother, actually I should say our mother, tried to keep her away from me. After all, I was only her half-sister. I was a creature of wildernesses. My skin was darker, and I climbed the trees like a monkey. In return for her niceties, I shared with her all the fruits of the trees I had rampaged. We were both very young then. She was five and I, ten. Our mother often caught us in the garden rolling in the mud, stained with the color of blackberries or devouring green mangoes. Of course, I was the one who always got punished. She was the darling of her father’s eyes. Who would dare to touch her?
I often wonder if I loved Priya back then. I do not know. Do children love one another? Looking back on those years, I believe I treated her as a doll that was denied to me. I wanted to please her so that she would come to me behind our mother’s back. I knew as early as then that mother didn’t love me. My own father was twenty years older than her, and I was born to her when she was barely eighteen. But he had died in an accident before I was born, and she caught the eye of an extremely rich man, and they were wedded in no time. I was born six months after my mother’s marriage to her second husband. And mother made it very clear that the man she had married was not mine to claim even if he was my father in papers.
I can still recall that particular day I was leaning out of the living room door to watch the family tableau of father-mother-daughter and wishing I was part of it too. Suddenly, mother turned back and saw me. She hissed, “Get inside. What are you doing here?”
Then Priya and her father turned too. Priya waved and laughed, “Come, Apu. Can’t she come too, Abbu?” Her upturned face was radiant with expectation as she looked at her father who also smiled back. “Yes, of course. Come along, Nara.”
Mother glowered, but at Priya’s insistence she agreed to let me join them all on the terrace. Of course, I did not sit with them at the tea-table, but I did hang around them. I watched them contentedly as I had received more than I ever expected.
That was, however, only the beginning.
Up till this moment I only wished that he was my father too. But ma always made sure that I remembered my place. I was always the other sister, the other daughter, the other girl in the family. From this moment onward, I walked behind Priya as her shadow, taking care of her needs, and she depended on me as if I was a second mother. I believe, she loved me too because she knew that nobody else loved her as I did.
I remember the wedding ceremony of Atushi. Atushi was Priya’s cousin, the only daughter of Farzand Fuppi. Priya was of course, as lovely as a rose. She wore a pink coloured lehenga embroidered with seed pearls. It was outrageously expensive as her parents made sure that she had the best of things. But she was still a young girl of thirteen and it was I, the eighteen-year-old Nara, who caused a stir that evening. I was dressed in a peacock blue lehenga that my stepfather almost bullied my mom into getting for me.
“I won’t have one daughter wearing the most expensive thing and another dressed like a pauper,” he had bellowed.
Mother protested, “Nara’s not your daughter.”
He roared, “She’s mine as much as Priya. Don’t you ever say she’s not my daughter.”
Mother cringed and went as pale as a waif. She tried to say something but could not form a single syllable.
Some young male cousins of Priya wowed at our entrance and a female relative sneered, “Goodness gracious! Look at Nara! She just sailed in! Fayaz Uncle will have a Draupadi in his hands in no time.” At some innermost corner of my heart, I reveled. As I turned to look at my mother and Priya, I saw contrasting emotions. Priya was beaming with pure blithe, my darling sweet sister. But in mother’s eyes, I saw panic. She appeared like a terrified deer and clung to Priya. I could not understand why she was so afraid of her very own daughter. But I was naïve, and I did not know the world as she did. Nor did I know the darkest secret she held in her heart.
They called me a princess. From my childhood I was pampered like one and my mother guarded over me with utmost jealousy. I was an only child and the doctors had said that my mother could not bear another. But then I also had Nara Apu even though everybody called her my half-sister. Technically, she was my half-sister as we had different fathers. Mother always made it clear that she did not care for her at all. And she disliked her even more because I loved her to distraction. In that palace-like prison, she was the only person who cared for me truly. Love shone in her eyes like a beacon, and I cannot help wondering how Nara Apu, who got so little love herself, could love me with such abundance.
She had dark complexion, but that made her all the more beautiful. Her eyes were like pools of black water, the only feature she had inherited from our mother. My eyes are of greenish hue, the eyes that came from my father’s side of the family. When we were children, father was kind of indifferent toward Nara Apu. But Apu had such an unselfish nature that it was difficult to remain unresponsive towards her. And even though my father was a busy man, he did not miss how much she cared for me. Slowly, his attitude toward her changed.
And there was that one time when she practically saved my life. I jumped into the lake after being goaded by some of my cousins even though I did not know how to swim. I realised how stupid the move was as I gulped water and I saw my two dumb cousins standing by the shore gaping at me in horror. I heard a piercing cry, and I sensed it was my mother and then there were several splashes. Then someone got me by the hand, “Don’t grab me,” it said. “Just hold on to my hands.” I flailed and splashed and cried. Then two stronger hands got hold of me.
As I was lying in bed later with mother crying beside me, I learnt that I had two saviours—Nara Apu and Shahnewaz Uncle. It was Nara Apu who had reached me first, and Shahnewaz Uncle reached a few seconds later and grabbed us both and brought me ashore. From that day, everybody knew that Nara and Priya belong together.
By the time she was fifteen, Abbu made sure that mother was not mistreating her daughter from her first marriage. I heard him once telling her, “Salma, do you consider me such a petty creature that I would be jealous of that slip of a girl? You don’t have to treat her so bad, you know, to prove that you love Priya more.”
Mother wept and I could see she was disturbed. But she never really loved her. It is one mystery I never understood until years later.
I also formed a close bonding with Shahnewaz Uncle. Of course, he lived in the same house, but he was always busy with painting. He was Abbu’s younger brother, but they did not have a very close relationship. But he did take notice of me and sometimes patted me on the head. After this particular incident, he started taking interest in both me and Nara. He brought for us licorice of different shapes and tastes and other delicacies. My favourite was orange, while Apu liked peppermint. He laughed at her, “What an old woman you are!” Nara Apu made faces at him and grinned impishly.
During these times, I also started to note that Mother was actually afraid of Nara Apu. It did not make sense to me at all. But whenever Apu was around either Abbu or Shahnewaz Uncle, she would fidget uncomfortably and say nasty things. Once I heard her grumbling to herself that Nara Apu was out to grab men. Poor Apu was only sixteen years old at that time. Then on her nineteenth birthday Mother suggested that she could be married off to Rabbi, a poor relation who worked in our country estate. When Abbu realised that she was serious, he suddenly went very still. Then he said in a very low voice, “If you ever utter such nonsense, or if I ever hear that you’ve initiated something like that, I will have you drowned. Daughters of my family don’t marry servants…. And, from today, she is mine. Forget that you ever gave birth to her, you wretched woman.”
I don’t know what come over her, but mother just fainted away.
Mother was always a troublemaker. In those days, I could never understand why she hated me so. Our father (I had started calling him Baba at some point; I did not call him Abbu though) was away on a business-trip. And that is when I discovered a terrible secret. I never knew the whole story, but I can still recall the strange conversation that night when Priya was raving in fever and Baba was away. I had fallen asleep in the sofa in Priya’s room and the words streamed into my consciousness:
“All these years, I’ve waited. I’ve waited for him to die. Is there nothing you can do? Priya will always be known as someone else’s daughter.” I heard the sound of muffled weeping of a woman. She whimpered as she said, “And I have to remember all the time that the child that is legitimate is actually the result of rape. I… I … can never love Nara… I was young and I didn’t want her… I hated that man… why couldn’t she die at birth…Why didn’t you let her die?”
Even in my sleep I went numb with pain. Until that moment I had resented that my mother never loved me. There in that nightmarish darkness, in a half-conscious state I learnt the nature of the relationship that existed between my mother and father. I knew, of course, that he was way older than she was. But I never knew that she was married off to him because he had raped her.
Then I heard the voice of a man. The voice was sad but steady, “He’s the rightful son of my father, Salma. I cannot do anything. Even if he dies, I won’t inherit the family property. My mother was only my father’s mistress, you know. Fayaz bhaiya has been generous enough to let me live here. If his mother was alive, he would never be able to do so. You already know that. And Priya has to be recognised as his daughter, otherwise she will get nothing either.”
I was so shocked that a sound escaped my mouth, and my mother was at my side within a moment. In that semi-darkened room, I saw her dark eyes glazed with sheer terror. And I knew that a woman in her predicament would not allow anything or anyone to get between herself and her object of desire. I pretended that I had had a bad dream about Priya. Then we both ran toward Priya’s bed.
A week later, before Priya had completely recovered, mother fell from the stairs and was killed. But a lot of things started to fall in place. Since she could not have any more children, she was protective about Priya and so possessive too. She had no choice but to pass her off as the daughter of her husband. She also wanted to remain the wife of the man who was as rich as a king. She had nowhere to go either. The man she loved, she could not have. And the other daughter, that is me, was a child she never wanted. My father, she never loved. Poor woman! What a life!
It was a strange house after that—two brothers grieving for the woman they both loved. Shahnewaz Uncle suddenly seemed to have grown old. He reminded me of Tithonus bereft of his Dawn. And our stepfather seemed distant and gloomy like a thunderstorm. Yes, that’s how I started thinking. He was Priya’s father only as much as mine. Somehow, the running of the household fell into my hands and Priya became my shadow. She grew to be afraid of the dark. She saw mother’s shadow in the darkness, and I started sleeping in her room. We grew closer than ever. That’s the time when I learnt to love her truly, like my very own sister, without the slightest trace of jealousy.
I saw the woman in shroud for the first time about two weeks after Mother died. She was sitting in the veranda in the evening. I called out without thinking and when she looked back, I shuddered because she had no face. Yet I knew she was a woman. I heard a piercing scream and when two arms gathered around me, I realised that it was Nara Apu and that I had screamed. I think I fainted and when I woke up, I was in my bed and Apu was sitting by my bed, her eyes clouded with worry.
“I saw her, Apu,” I whispered. “I think I saw Ma.”
Apu’s face paled, but she shushed, “You saw nothing, darling. It was just a shadow. And don’t worry, I’m here. I’ll take care of everything.”
But I saw the woman again a few days later. She was watering the plants on the rooftop at the wake of dawn. I saw her from my window, and I knew it was her. Why was she haunting me? And why did nobody else see her?
Nara Apu made sure after that I was always surrounded by people, esp. in the evening. At night, she slept in my room. Initially, she slept in a cot, but later at my insistence, she slept in the same bed with me. During those days, Nara Apu was strong. She walked with grim determination; she protected me like a warrior-princess. I felt safe when she was around. During daytime, things were normal, but as soon as the darkness crept in, a fearful feeling rose in my heart. I was afraid of shadows. I realised I had to bring Nara Apu in. But how to tell her? I could not give away my secrets; hence I told her only what I could.
That night when we were getting ready for bed, I caught her hand and whispered, “Apu, I have to tell you something. Have you seen Shahnewaz Uncle’s mother?”
Nara Apu gaped at me in incomprehension.
“I saw her picture in his closet. He said it was the picture of his mother.”
Very slowly Apu got up and sat again. And then she said even more slowly, “She… was… drowned… in a… pond, they say. I wonder…”
I stuttered, “Nara Apu, she… looks … exactly… like me.”
Nara Apu did not say anything, but just looked at me. And I realised with a jolt that she knew. When did she come to know that? And she still protected me like anything? When did she learn about it?
I burst into tears, and she held me close like she always did. “Shush, shush, my pretty. You’re safe with me. None can harm you when I’m here. Shush…” What if she knew the truth? Could she bear it? Could I bear if she did not?
I had to be strong and brave for the sake of Priya. I could not tell her what Baba had told me. Sometimes I wonder how was it that my own mother never loved me, but I got so much love from a complete stranger. No, I am not talking about Priya, I mean Baba. That rainy afternoon when he called me to his study, haunts me still.
He was standing by the window watching the rain. When I entered, he bade me sit. He did not turn to look at me but spoke:
“Sit, Nara. I have some things to tell you.”
I waited patiently.
“We’re in a strange situation here, are we not? Your mother has died, and you are stuck within the walls of a strange house with people whose ties to each other are stranger.” I shuffled uneasily. What was he saying? What was he referring to?
“This is a big house. Do you know that walls have ears?” he ploughed on. “There are many secrets this house holds and even I do not know them all.” Here he turned to look at me. He had smoky eyes, eyes he inherited from his mother. He was a very handsome man even though he was in his mid- fifties. He sighed and said, “I know who Priya is.”
I bolted from my chair, and I knew my face had lost its colour.
He shook his head. “I have known it for quite some time now. Priya looks a lot like Shahnewaz’s mother. I had not realised when she was younger, but as she is growing up, I’ve been detecting the resemblances.”
I sat trembling. Was he planning to punish us? Why was he telling me all these?
“Sit, Nara. I am not going to hurt you or Priya for something your mother did.”
A terrible suspicion started to creep in my mind. And I had thought… “Did… you… you did not kill her, right?” the words tumbled out of my mouth.
He looked at me sadly. “I did not kill her.” He paused and searched my face. “But why do you say that, Nara? Your mother died in an accident, did she not?”
I remained silent.
“Nara, I want you to know that I have drawn documents with my lawyers and have divided my property equally between you and Priya. Both of you are my daughters, mind you. I do not care who the natural fathers are, I recognise you as my children. And I want you to take care of Priya, no matter what.” He paused again and asked, “Do you understand?”
I nodded mutely. Then I asked, “But why? I mean, are you going somewhere?”
He seemed lost in thought. But then he raised himself out of his reverie and smiled, “I guess, you can say that.” He paused and then added, “You can trust Shahnewaz. Like me, he loves both of you. I believe that he loves you even more because you are not his child. He has no hold over you and yet he owes you for saving his daughter’s life.” At that moment I realised how much he loved us both. I felt a wrenching pain for this man who was more than a father to us, and yet he was not our father.
As I was walking out of the room he called me back, “You’re strong, Nara. Far stronger than any of us. You’ll survive.”
Nara and Priya
There was total chaos in the family after Fayaz Chowdhury’s disappearance. The bulk of the property was left to Nara and Priya with Shahnewaz Chowdhury as the legal guardian. Neither Nara, nor Priya could claim their share until their 25th birthday. If either of them died before that, their share would pass on to Shahnewaz. Fayaz Chowdhury’s sisters could not make head or tail of their brother’s wishes. Why did he leave half of his property to Nara? Even though adopted, she virtually was no blood relation to him. Naturally, not any of them could accept that she had suddenly been elevated to the status of a princess.
Priya’s problem at this point was she still saw the shadow of a woman periodically. But by now they both had accepted that Priya would keep on seeing her. She became more and more dependent on Nara.
On that particular afternoon, Nara was making tea on the veranda. Priya was sitting on the small sofa when she just could not take it any more. “Apu, do you know that you are the most beautiful girl that ever lived?” she asked with an unnatural fervency.
Nara raised her dark eyes and laughed. “What got into you, sweetie? If I’m the most beautiful one, what are you?”
Priya smiled in spite of herself. “Apu, will you go away when you get married?”
“I’ll never get married,” Nara suddenly went somber.
“I don’t trust men,” came the simple reply. She paused and then proceeded to say, “Our poor mother! I just feel so sorry for her.”
“Why do you feel sorry for her? She was a selfish bitch!” There, it was out in the open, thought Priya. It still bothered her that the wretched woman never learnt to love her elder daughter.
Nara shook her head. “No, Priya, she was just a miserable woman. She could not have the man she loved and had to deal with two other men.”
Priya’s eyes stung as the words tumbled out, “You loved her?”
“She was my mother,” said Nara matter-of-factly. “What she did was done out of her own miserable state of mind. I cannot help loving her.”
Priya’s face went as white as chalk. “Apu, I killed her.” The whispering confession was as soft as the first snow. Nara went still. When she turned to look at her sister, she said with a sadness that only tremendous love for a child can produce, “I know. Baba knew too, I believe.”
Priya cried with an abundance that knew no limit. “She hated you. That wretched woman! She wanted to kill you when you were born. Did you know that? Shahnewaz Uncle did not let her. Those two men—they have had so much love in them for that wicked woman. And you love her too? How can you love her? … Sh she was… a witch… an evil witch… I can never… forgive her… never…. Do you know she planned on killing you again? She… she had come to … sus… suspect that you knew the secret of… my birth. I p-pushed her d-down the stairs. I would n-never let anyone harm you… never…” by this point Priya had become hysterical.
Priya was still screaming when they took her away. Her mind had gone completely berserk. She certainly was not a criminal. No wonder the pressure she had retained through the two years after her mother’s death overwhelmed her completely. Nara pulled through the time, and she dragged her Shahnewaz uncle through it too. When Fayaz Chowdhury finally returned home, it was once again a strange household—two fathers held together by a daughter who belonged to neither. And yet, she was the daughter of the woman they both had loved. It is strange that Nara’s mother never loved the child begotten through rape and abuse, and yet Nara had so much to give. That made all the difference.
 Elder sister
 Father’s sister
 Long full skirt
 Elder brother
Sohana Manzoor is Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at ULAB. Her short stories and translations have been published in many journals and anthologies in South and South-East Asia. Currently, she is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh. This story was first published in Six Seasons’ Review.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL