Shutters clicked away. Flashes dazzled eyes. News reporters jostled with each other to hold out their mikes as far as their arms allowed. Busy fingers gripped their ballpoints tighter.
A group of borkha-clad women filed out of the baggage reclaim area, hiding their faces.
The reporters ringed in the women. Rokeya dodged the crowd. Followed by Shamsun Nahar, she walked far past the railing and sighed.
"Where will you go now?" Shamsun Nahar asked.
Rokeya didn't reply.
"Come with me. You can stay with us a couple of days. I'm with an NGO. We provide legal aid for women. Here's my card."
Rokeya turned around. "I don't need it."
"Keep it, just in case," the woman smiled and left.
Three coffins were brought out on trolleys with people wailing behind. An old woman had passed out. A young boy looked perplexed, clutching the corner of his father's shirt. A little girl cried for her mother.
"Take me away from here," Rokeya whispered.
She looked out the windows of the rental. The flyovers reminded her of the ones between Jeddah and Riyadh; she'd been on them not very long ago. Water was scarce there. Vast deserts dominated the landscape; there was just sand – lots of it.
The run-up to her first plane trip passed in a flurry. Leaving her children behind tore her heart out; her only consolation had been that she was setting foot in a holy land.
The Prophet's country! A Flower bloomed amid its arid, sandy expanses fourteen hundred years back. She had cherished its fragrance in her heart all her life.
"You're lucky; not every Muslim gets a chance to visit the country," the imam of the local mosque beamed.
Jalal was unwilling at first. Nobody from his family had ever worked as a domestic worker. But he came around when Rokeya listed the paybacks; it seemed too good to pass on.
A hairy hand was feeling Rokeya up in the dark. She resisted with all her strength, but the hand possessed superhuman powers. Her mouth was already clamped with his other hand. Pinned to the bed, she writhed in pain.
"A-a-h!" Rokeya started up. The shaggy darkness bristled against her skin. She squirmed. The nightmare kept coming back to her night after night.
It started on the 31st of March, she clearly remembered. She'd gone to bed, finishing all her chores. The sheikh's wife was out of town. A furry hand gagged her with a ball of cloth in the middle of the night. "I own you, and I can do anything I want," a raspy voice she recognized whispered in her ear.
She woke up in the morning with pain all over her body. She had passed out from the beating and torture. She felt dirty. Even after taking showers, the feeling wouldn't just wash off. She stopped saying her prayers for two days.
Jumping off the high-rise seemed the easiest way out; but once on the balcony, she saw two innocent faces pleading with her. She couldn't even die. She cried a full hour.
"Hello, it's me – Rokeya. I'm in Bangladesh now."
"Did you bring any money?" Jalil asked.
"Yes, how's my children?"
"Can you come to Dhaka to pick me up?"
Rokeya flopped down on the bed. She could go back home! She could return to her children! Tears of joy filled her eyes.
The bus Rokeya and Jalil got on was parked in the rutted mud. It had "Shatkhira Deluxe Express" painted in red cursive letters on the sides. From the driver's rear-view mirror dangled a hanging that had "Allahu" written in Arabic.
The bus started right at 7 am. She could see expanses of green paddy fields passing by through the windows. The occasional villages were concealed in a smoky, deeper green. There was just green—lots of it, so unlike the desert land she had left behind.
The back of the dollar bill she had got from the son was also green. "My father must never know," he said. She flung down the hairy bill straightaway. He gave a fiendish smile, "Oh, the miskin wants more." Tossing another greenback, he left. It was to be her price. She cried another full hour.
It was then she set on fleeing. An Egyptian doctor, who lived next door, called the police, who in turn handed her over to the Bangladesh Consulate in Jeddah; then came the safe house, and then…
Jalil was sitting next to her. What was he thinking? Did he have a clue? They were to share their bed tonight. He had hairy hands too. She froze.
Rokeya smothered Shamim and Sumona with kisses upon reaching home. Everything was the same as when she left a year ago. The chicken coop was still missing half of its top. The cement platform at the base of the tube well had been the playground of marauding algae. The rose plant was dead, however.
Rokeya touched her mother-in-law's feet.
"You could've brought a lot more money, had you stayed. I was taking good care of your children; you can ask them if you don't believe me."
"What the hell's the meaning of these marks?" Jalil exploded.
Rokeya was weeping. "Believe me, I'm innocent."
"You w_____! Now I understand why you wanted to go abroad."
"You don't understand. I saved myself. I ran away, didn't I? I did that for you – for our family."
Jalil was hysterical. He walked up and down, pulling his hair with both hands. "I'm going to go mad if I stay here any longer."
"Can't you forgive me?"
"Forgive! Bitch, I'm going to divorce you!"
"No, no, don't say that. Kill me, but don't say that."
Jalil stormed out, leaving the door open. It was dark outside. Moonlight cast a pale glow over everything, however. The skeleton of the rose plant was clearly visible. The lack of water that had killed it, might as well have been an excess of sand. Sand and water. The sandstorm in the Arabian deserts had rippled out into a cyclone on the Bay of Bengal.
"You're right – a man has every right to punish his wife if she's unfaithful," the imam said, "the newspapers nowadays are filled with scandalous reports and photos of these women. To defame the Prophet's Land like this, for shame, for shame!"
"I warned Jalil before she went abroad. He didn't listen. When a woman sets foot outside her home, she only brings disgrace to the whole family," Jalil's mother curled her lips.
They were seated under the guava tree in the yard. Rokeya was on the porch behind a bamboo chik. She had sent the kids out under some pretext. The tube well platform had been scraped clean. The chicken coop donned a full roof in months. The rose plant was missing.
"My mind's made up, and she has to leave all the money she's brought; it was I who paid for her plane fare and everything else."
Rokeya began to snivel. "Where will I go?" she asked.
"What do I know? Didn't you think of it when you committed jena?'
Rokeya wanted to protest. She wanted to point out one last time what Jalil was refusing to see through. Nevertheless, she knew her husband. "I have a request," she said, "I want to take my children with me."
"Never! I'll not let your shadow fall over my children."
The matter was settled. The imam gave his blessings. The mother hoped she'd get a better daughter-in-law the next time and a generous dowry. The son felt confident he'd not let his mother down.
Cyclones on the Bay of Bengal were notorious for razing everything to the ground. This one – though born of the desert – flooded everything in its path. Water and sand.
That night Rokeya cried for a long time, again. She had packed her bag and she did not forget to place her copy of the Quran on top of everything else, wrapped in a satin scarf. The children had cried themselves to sleep. She would come back for them, she had assured.
She took the NGO worker's card out and stroked it with her fingers. She repeated the phone number to herself.
Putting it back, she went to bed. Lying in the dark, she saw the light; she dared knit herself an invisible shawl – one neither sand nor water could affect.
Tanvir Malik's first book is a collection of short stories called Short Takes: Stories from Bangladesh. A teacher by profession, he enjoys reading, travelling, and painting.