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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.