<%-- Page Title--%> Fiction <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 120 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

August 29, 2003

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A Journey in the Night
Shabnam Nadiya


Anjona sat at the table her husband and son had been holding for them and tried not to think. She watched her family as they talked, joked and laughed while they ate and sipped slowly at the cup of tea she had ordered. She was going to the seaside with her family--this was a good thing. For a few days she would not think of mother-in-law or her sister-in-law or about the “women trouble” (as her husband called her in law problems whenever she had attempted to discuss them with him). For a few days she would be glad just to be alive. For a few days she would feel what it was like to be alive.

But how could she have said something like that in front of the maid, in front of her grand daughter? Anjona couldn't decide which was worse. Everybody was done eating and drinking. “Are you sure you don't want anything to eat?” her husband asked her. When she shook her head without saying anything, he called to the waiter for the bill. The bus assistant came to their table with a smile and said, “Aren't you Blue Bird passengers? The bus will be leaving in fifteen minutes.” Her husband nodded and said, “We'll be out in ten minutes.”

The assistant left. Her son began an argument with his sister about changing their seats. He wanted to sit with ammu this time. Her daughter said no and stuck her tongue out at him. Her husband interrupted their argument, “No fighting that was the deal, remember?”And all through this, while all this was going on around her, Anjona sat there with a slight smile fixed to her lips and saw and heard nothing. All through this, all she could think of was after all these years making a home for her husband, being a good little wife, after the pain and pleasure of having two children, what was she? No matter how nice she was, no matter how 'good' she tried to be, no matter what care she took of her mother in law, Anjona still was the girl whose mother had not taught her properly how to sew because she had once sewed uneven pleats in her mother in laws blouse, she would forever be the fatherless girl whose sisters eloped and whose relatives made bad marriages, the girl whose family was not quite up to the mark in terms of character and morals. “Nothing really changes in life,” she thought to herself sardonically; “We just grow heavier, older and more wrinkled.”

Anjona left the shiny roadside restaurant with her family and boarded the bus. The honeymooners whose happiness she had wanted to steal a glance at was nowhere in her mind at the moment. Yet when she climbed into the bus, the man's seat was empty and the girl was standing half in the aisle trying to put a bag in the overhead compartment. Her head was covered with a red, heavily embroidered orna effectively hiding her face. Anjona would have passed her by unnoticed this time except for something familiar in the way the girl's slim body moved. As Anjona moved forward, the girl slid into the darkness of her seat and could be seen no longer except as an obscure shadow the contours of which merged with that of the bus window and the seat.

Puzzled, Anjona followed her husband and children to their own seats, wondering why the look of the girl felt familiar. This time their disagreement resolved by their father the son came to sit with the mother directing a triumphant smile at his sister. Anjona took a scarf out of her bag and handed it to her husband to wrap around their daughter's throat. Her son chattered to her excitedly about all the things he expected the sea to be, and the crabs he was going to catch and the shells he was to collect, the bus and the journey, the food he had just ate as the bus once again resumed its journey. Unlike the daughter who was older, in his intense excitement the son did not require too deep a response to any of his talk and judicious interjections of hmm and really? from the mother were enough to keep him happy. Soon he began dozing, his head occasionally bumping against his mother's shoulder. Someone snorted in their sleep somewhere at the back. Anjona sat and thought. Throughout the night.

Dawn arrived peeking through the ragtag curtains spread over the bus windows. An hour at most and they would be there. People were stirring throughout the bus waking up to the unaccustomed-to early light. Anjona watched a shard of sunlight scraping her son's cheek as he slept. His immature face seemed to bear a queer imprint of his father's face. He was a good man, the children's father. But that didn't make much difference to her life. Anjona had decided to have a 'talk' with her mother in law once she got back home. It was about time. For once she would behave with them the way they behaved towards her. For once she would attempt to be someone.

Her husband stretched and looked at her, “Haven't you slept at all?”
“No,” she replied briefly.

“I've had a grand sleep,” he yawned, “But I'm still sleepy.” Anjona moved the curtain and looked out of the window without answering. Her daughter rubbed her eyes and sat up straight. “Ammu, are we there yet?”

Anjona didn't answer. Someone at the front called out to the bus assistant, “Bhai, how long till we get there?” The assistant walked down the aisle holding on to the backs of the seats “Half an hour at most.”

“That was fast,” said Anjona's husband.
“Yes sir, the roads were clear and our drivers are very good.” The assistant moved to the front of the bus again.
“Are we early?” asked Anjona.
“Oh yes, we're only supposed to be at Chittagong by now. We're almost an hour and a half ahead.” He reached across and shook their son awake, “Come on sleepy head, don't you want to see the sea?” The child sat up and blinked then smiled eagerly at his parents. “Where is it? Where is it? Are we there?”

“Of course not, stupid, we'll be there in half an hour.” His sister replied with a wise air. Their father laughed. “Abbu can I sit with apu now?” Asked the son.
“Okay…but no fighting!”
Anjona's husband climbed out of his seat to let brother and sister sit together. She moved to the window seat; he sat down beside her. He dozed off again almost immediately, despite the low pitched yet excited chatter in the seat beside them. After a while he asked, “Aren't you hungry? You didn't have anything to eat in the night.”

“Didn't feel like it,” she replied shortly.
“Is there anything wrong?” he asked.
“What do you mean wrong?”
“Well, you sound…”
“I sound what?” she didn't even let him finish.
He turned and looked at her. “Look,” he began, “If I have …”

“Your mother told my maid that because of my family background I go dancing off the first chance I get.” He didn't say anything. Just looked at her.
“She said it to the maid,” Anjona repeated. “In front of our daughter.”

Her husband exhaled slowly. “If Amma said…”
“Yes yes I know, you're not to be bothered with women trouble, its not your problem. It never is.” Anjona moved her body slightly away and looked out the window. Wisely, her husband stayed silent.

Soon they had reached Cox's bazar, and they were even treated to a glimpse of the sea like a trailer of coming attractions for a forthcoming film. Her son was bouncing up and down on his seat in excitement, while her daughter tried to retain her composure in keeping with her elder sister status. But her excitement at the sight of the waves billowing onto the sandy beach was betrayed by the sheer exuberance of her smile. “Ammu did you see, did you see?” they clamoured. Although this was the first time for Anjona too, somehow she didn't feel as excited as she had thought she would be.

The bus stopped and people began trickling towards the exit still half wrapped comfortably in sleep. Anjona checked the seat pockets a last time and followed her children off the bus. She climbed down onto the road and stood a bit to the side with the children, while her husband went to the side of the bus to see about their luggage. The people who had got off before them had already got their bags and were beginning to drift away some looking this way and that for rickshaws, some moving purposefully ahead to their destinations on foot. It was then that it happened.

Her husband turned and beckoned her to come and help him with their bags. Anjona told the children to wait there while she went and helped their father. As she walked towards him, the couple she had thought of as honeymooners were walking towards her carrying a bag each. The girl still had the red orna covering her head. As they walked toward her, for the first time, Anjona saw the girl's face. She stopped in mid stride. It was Sheila. Her mother in law's niece. That was why even in the darkness of the interior of the bus Anjona had felt that the girl was familiar, for Anjona had known the girl for the whole twelve years of her marriage. Sheila who was studying history at the university. Sheila whose mother had complained that marrying their boy to Anjona had not been such a good idea. Sheila who was now walking with her hand lightly yet intimately resting on the man's arm. Sheila who was not married.

Anjona felt a peculiar sense of satisfaction, bordering on cruel exultation. Well, well, well. Now where would the good name of the family be? This family whose daughters danced off with men the first chance they got? So this was how Sheila spent the time she was supposedly staying in the university hall studying with friends. Now what would Sheila's mother and aunt have to say about this one wondered. Particularly to the undisciplined, misguided, coming from a bad family daughter in law.

Thoughts raced through Anjona's head in seconds, vindictive, cold, satisfied thoughts. Then their eyes met and she looked at Sheila's face. For a second there was recognition in the eyes that were glowing with happiness and then there was just heartstopping fear. Ashen white, the girl's face twisted in fear, as if the future had come and suddenly stood right in front of her. Her male companion (he was a boy really, Anjona now saw) not understanding, was looking at her with concern and was asking what was wrong. In about two seconds he would follow her stricken gaze and look at Anjona.

And at that moment Anjona felt as if she could never ever look into her daughter's eyes again with a clear conscience. She felt that forever after when she would laugh with her daughter in shared happiness, or ask to be let in on a secret that only children were supposed to know, there would always be a small place where that sunshine could not enter. And that small piece of darkness she would carry around in her heart for as long as she lived, perhaps longer.

Anjona smiled at Sheila's stricken face. There was so much that she wanted to say in that one smile so much disappointment, and joy, and love, and laughter was stuffed inside her that it was like a fire in her belly that reached and seared the inside of her throat. Anjona said nothing for there were no words that could say the things that needed to be said.

Anjona walked past Sheila as she walked past the other people from the bus. She smiled at her husband, a smile as clear and happy as her daughter's, a smile that could swallow misery and turn it into something so preciously close to joy and said, “Come on, hurry up you slow coach, the children are waiting.”