It’s late June and it’s hot. It’s nine in the morning and it’s hot. It’s so hot in Dhaka that after a while feelings turn somewhat numbed, vision blurred. And taking advantage of the overcrowded vehicle, when a guy pinches Shila Chakma’s buttock after a futile attempt to grope her breast, she wants to scream: Stop it, you pervert.
Every day, Shila’s ordeal begins with waiting in front of a toilet in a long queue of impatient women. After a fast and futile freshening up, she finds herself at the bus stand, lingering with another queue of people, mostly officegoers. Around seven, the Modhumoti bus arrives to its last spot. For Shila, there will be no seat to sit on, little space to rest either feet or anxiety. But there’ll always be a pervert to pounce on her.
Today seems worse. For hours, the bus stands as if transfixed. The long line of vehicles stretched interminably ahead shows little hope. It has something apocalyptic about it. Something sinister.
Shila looks outside—a stream of rickshaws with vibrant drawings on their backs glowing with painful brilliance, little girls selling summer fruits sprinkled with sugar or salt, a few cha-wallahs by the roadside hawking their tea and biscuits.
A sticky heat rises through the feet, pervading clothes, pores and even the hair. The traffic, clamour, honking, cursing and whistling make it worse. On top of that, the man standing behind her is now pressing his body against her. Shila has had enough. She presses her pointed heel on the man’s feet. Groaning, the guy moves back. Shila smiles. Revenge is best served with a pair of high heels.
The moment Shila pushes the door of Total Beauty Spa and Salon, to a different world she transports. Cool air mixed with the scent of sandalwood, scented oil, and spa cream wash over her. She lets the air and aroma wrap around her damp body while heading towards the change room, when Konika, the in-charge of the parlour, spots her.
“It’s 11 in the morning. And you’re late again,” poring over a chart book, Konika says.
Putting a red mark beside Shila’s name, Konika tells her sternly, “Another day late and I’ll cut your salary of one day. One more day left.” She makes the declaration vociferously as if she wants it, she wills it to happen. As if another day of Shila’s being late could only appease her tormented soul. “Why late today?” she asks.
“Don’t give that shit. It won’t work with me. How come I reach on time every day?”
Because you are a sick old woman who has nothing better to do. Shila says in her mind and leaves. She changes fast into a black trouser, red striped shirt and a messy high ponytail. She sprinkles powder on her body and sprays deodorant under arms. Coming out, Shila looks around for a customer to attend when Konika instructs her. “Shila, go to spa section. Mira won’t come today.”
Shila says Namaste with a smile, with both hands pressed against her chest tilting the head a bit. The lady merely looks at her saying nothing. They never do.
“Would you like to have a cup of ginger tea or green tea?”
“Green tea would be fine.”
Shila brings a cup of tea and a wet towel on a tray. The lady sips the tea, wets her face with a towel flipping through the pages of a magazine while Shila waits at a distance.
When the lady is done, Shila takes her to another room and brings a bowl of warm water with scented oil and floating rose petals onto it.
The lady places both her feet into the warm, foot bath. Shila takes out one foot and scrubs it with foot file. When one foot is done, she does the same with the other. Then she cuts toe nails with nail clippers and shapes them with nail file. She takes massage cream and rubs it all in, by running her hand up along the leg and all the way down again. Twice Shila changes the warm water. Twice she hopes the lady would give her a good tip. Twice she almost snoozes but stays alert.
Shila has not seen this woman before. A new customer, perhaps. The regular ones, they all know them. Some give handsome tips. Everyone feels happy to see them.
A mobile ringing startles Shila out of her reverie. The lady talks and laughs, Yes, I’d love to join. Thanks for inviting me. Who else are coming? … She talks more, laughs more. Shila listens to her but pretends not to.
The mention of a program reminds Shila of their little party today. Monica is getting married. They all demanded a treat. They wanted to go to a restaurant or a café nearby at lunch hour. Konika didn’t allow it.
So, they have ordered biriyani from Star Kabab, an eatery close by. Konika said they can’t have the food here. So, the plan had to change for the second time. Now they will go to the rooftop.
No matter how trivial the occasion is! The laughter, the jokes, the teasing, the food and the soothing air are worth the fifteen minutes they are allotted. The feeling is liberating, joyous.
Liya starts castigating Konika and all chip in, “I pray she rots in hell.”
“I hope she rots in this life as well,” Lara says. “She has no life of her own. She hates it when others have a good time.”
“Don’t say such stuff,” Shefali admonishes.
“Why?” They ask in chorus.”
“She is not all that evil,” Shefali says slowly, softly. “She had a son. He died young because she didn’t have enough money for his treatment. Her husband left her after the child’s death.”
They remain quiet for a while, taking in the information, ruminating whether to change their feelings for Konica or not. At the end, they don’t think, they don’t judge. They prefer not to waste their time on someone’s bygone tragedy. Rather they switch to current issues that are more fun.
“You know guys, Mira is having an affair with Madam Ruchi’s driver?” Lara says, blinking her eyes.
“No. I’m not.” Mira objects loudly.
“Then why he is giving you presents all the time?”
Everyone laughs. Mira blushes.
Parboni says. “The biriyani is awesome.”
“Yes,” they all agree, eating fast. They have five minutes left.
Shila didn’t like the taste of Bengali food earlier on. They use too much oil, too many spices. Bengalis relish spicy food and complain of heartburns. Then they take aspirin, eat more spicy foods, and complain of more heartburns.
Once Shila expressed this little discovery of hers and Konika accosted her: What Bengali people? Aren’t you a Bengali? Who do you think you are? A foreigner?
Shila was petrified. She apologised hundred times. But later when she pondered over it, she was not convinced. Do they look like the Bengalis, dress alike, eat the same things, speak the same language? No, then how come they share the same identity? They are Chakma people, a minority with a different culture and custom. A race Government is troubled with, confused with, and finally decides to ignore it.
But of course, she doesn’t say any of this. Instead, she says sorry. Instead, she says, “I didn’t mean it. Of course, I am a Bengali.”
She can’t offend anyone. She has left the hills where the river flows between the rocks like a snake coursing its way, where good fortune could come but never did. A good life, love or no love, sugarcoated sanity with loads of money are the things that brought her to the city.
Sitting on the rooftop Shila wonders if someday life will be better. Maybe one day like Monica, she too, will find love. The city will then become her home.
Meanwhile, she tries to fit in. She tries to make her customers happy. She patiently mixes sandalwood with oil and rubs it on soft foot. Sometimes she snoozes and dreams of a life, a good one. She will come as a customer, a fine lady. She will have pedicure while sipping aromatic green tea in her perfected dream.
But that life seems far away. Nine hundred nine dreams away. Two hundred two hills far. So, for now, she presses her hand against her chest and says namaste, with a smile as broad as the mountain that she has left behind.
Marzia Rahman is a writer and translator based in Dhaka.