Ammu is crying in the next room. Incessantly. I can't stand it any longer. Why did she do it? I have no doubt that she did it even though she keeps on denying. Abbu has been in the drawing room all afternoon, brooding over what Runu Fupi had said. Fupi was crying too while speaking. “I am not going to forget or forgive what she did. I understand your situation, Ashik, but that won't make me forget any of it. I am not blaming you, but if you think carefully, you'll realize who is telling the truth.”
Abbu looked helpless, not knowing who to believe. “Runu,” he said. “Do you have any proof? Didn't you tell anyone else?”
“If I had any proof, I wouldn't be standing here,” said Fupi grimly. “Only Amma knew of this, and she's gone. But I've nothing to gain by lying,” she paused and looked at Ammu. “She does.”
At this Ammu wailed, “Please, believe me. I don't know anything about this.”
Runu Fupi just shook her head and said, “Everything comes back—just remember this.” She turned to Abbu and said, “Ashik, remember what I said.” She walked out of the house, probably never ever to visit us again, I thought sadly.
Ours is a big family. I mean our extended family, of course. My father has nine more siblings, two of whom are dead, and my father is number seven. Most of my uncles and aunts are very well off. My father is not. He used to run the family business until he lost it completely. He does not have what you call business acumen. Both my parents are good people, but they are not wise. My father is soft-hearted, affectionate, not the kind who can run a business. I have seen many times when an employee had cried before him, his heart would melt and he would do what he could for him. Perhaps he is too gullible. Even we, his children, often lied to him about different things. He readily believed us. Mother is made of sterner stuff, of course. Her father was poor and she has been through a lot. But she has been a good mother.
I shuddered when I thought of Fupi's departing words, “Everything comes back.” What did she mean by them? The fact that Ammu betrayed her trust and we are to suffer for this? I looked out of the window and saw the cat next door crawling under the bushes. He has three legs, having lost its fourth in an accident years ago. I have always felt drawn to this cat which never complained or grumbled. I felt like running out and taking it in my arms and crying. I thought of bhaiya who is studying in Sweden. Runu Fupi had paid for his initial expenses. She sent him money regularly until he got scholarship in his second year. It's very unlikely that this Fupi would accuse Ammu without foundation. What should I do? Should I tell bhaiya? But he'll be devastated.
The large shrub of jasmin was emitting the usual sweet scent. I could see our next door neighbours strolling in the lane in front of our house. An ice-cream vendor passed by with his bells ringing. Titli is probably in her room. What a spectacle! Are we being able to uphold ourselves as good parents? Children adore their parents in their childhood, but as they grow up they also judge the same parents. At least, Dolly has stopped her incessant sobbing in the next room. I know exactly what she did. But how can I reproach her? Poor woman! After the first few blissful years of marriage all she had to take was the yoke of poverty. True, we have our own flat, but that is all we have. That chunk of money that I had from selling the family house in Wari! Lost in the share-market. What a wastrel I am! All my brothers' wives picked on Dolly. My sisters were nice and kind though. How they must be feeling now! I could hear Bilu bhabi and Shorna bhabi laughing. They were jealous of Dolly because she was my mother's favourite. All my sisters loved her most too. She became a sister to them.
Ah Runu! poor Runu! She loves Titash and Titli like her own children. She paid for the first year expenses for Titash's education. Will she come to Titash and Titli's wedding? Will her children continue to love me as their favourite uncle? What will Runu tell them about Dolly when she goes back to New Orleans?
The black and white cat was loping in the garden. It lost one of its hind legs several years ago. Yet it runs with agility. I wonder why it frolics in our garden. Am I like that three-legged cat? Yes, even though I am able-bodied, I cannot do much. I have not been able to protect my dear ones.
Forgive me, Allah. If you cannot forgive me, forgive my children. Don't punish them because of me. I am a sinner. But I did it because of my children.
All those years when I had to do needlework behind Ashik's back! I made dresses and supplied them to the boutique of my old school friend Sheuli. I made small nakshi kathas and sold them to friends and acquaintances. I told everybody half-jokingly about my hobby and extra income. Yes, it was a hobby, but it was also necessary. What did I not do to make ends meet? To be poor is one thing, but to be poor and pretend to being well-off is very difficult.
I still remember when Titli came running some days before her sixth birthday. “Ammu, what will you make on my birthday? Will I have a party like Priyanka?” I deflected the question by saying something else. But at night I cried. How to tell my little darling that we could not afford to have a party like Priyanka or any of her other cousins? Fortunately, my mother-in-law fell ill at the time of Titli's birthday, and I arranged a small birthday party only with Titli's friends and cousins. Nothing fancy. Titli was tremendously fond of her Dadu, and of course, did not object at all.
And when Titash went to study! It was a good program and they would provide scholarship from the second year. Even in the first year the tuition was free. But he would have to bear his living expenses. I remember the helpless look on Ashik's face. I had already sold most of my jewelry. I did not have anything decent left even for Titli. When Runu apa offered help, we were more than relieved. But I paid off by being extra courteous to Runu and her children. I am the one who always housed them when they came from abroad, didn't I? I took her to shopping. I cooked special dishes for them. Didn't I love Raina and Robin like my very own?
Yet, yet I have taken what belonged to them. The bridal jewelry that Runu apa left with me and the gorgeous necklace that her mother gave her. All I did was denying that I had them. And since Amma passed away there was nobody to support Runu apa's claim. Oh Allah, how will I ever face Ashish, the kind and gentle man who has never reproached me for anything? But I will have to. For the sake of my children's future, and for Titli's marriage, I will have to pretend that I didn't do anything. I'll have to pick the courage to face all my in-laws and just pretend that everything was fine. And maybe, just maybe everything will be fine. Runu apa is rich like a king, and they have four palatial apartments in Dhaka and two houses in the US. Surely, it won't harm her that much? And she may not forgive me, but in time she will forgive her brother and look upon her favourite nephew and niece with kindness. I'm sure she will! And maybe in time, she will forget what I did.
Oh dear, that cat again! Something about its stealthy movement bothers me. Why is it crouching like that? it's not after those sparrows, I hope. The whole place will turn into a mess. Bipu's tomcat once caught a rat in the garden. It was awful! Where is Ekhlas? I must tell him to chase it away.
The black and white cat with its three legs suddenly leapt into the air and a sparrow sprinted off just in the nick of time. The cat sat with a few feathers in its mouth and continued to eye the sparrows that occasionally dived and played around the garden. He waited patiently and was sure that one day he will catch one of them.
Sohana Manzoor is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. She is also the Deputy Editor of the Star Literature and Review Pages.