It seemed as though my little sister had climbed the five and a half stories from out of the dark recesses of the road where they were digging in the light of lanterns. I would have seen her had she come walking along the streetlight-flooded footpath or on a rickshaw along the silent evening road. I had been standing on the verandah overlooking the road since the late afternoon.
I had left my bed already once during the afternoon. Standing amidst the dead plants on the verandah, I had looked down only to have my head spin like a ceiling fan. Along with the whole city. As though I was on a swing from my childhood. I grabbed onto the grille to stop the spinning and noticed the people on the street moving about busily. After watching the incessant flow of customers in the departmental store, the sweetmeat shop, the jewelry store, I managed to arrange them in order like a line of ants. Even the rickshaws on the street seemed to line up like ants – as though they were carrying not passengers but food on their backs. I turned my eyes away from the boring order of the ants and gazedat the disorderly people pushing each other around. Aah! Engaged in this rat race, how long would these people even live? Twenty? Twenty-five? Thirty years? And perhaps the child sitting on his mother's lap in the rickshaw may survive a little longer if I took his young age into account – still it wouldn't be more than sixty or seventy. Just then, I was gratified to hear a death announcement from the cone-shaped loudspeaker of the neighborhood announcer. Just as I thought. Perhaps the man who had rushed off with a packet of sweetmeats a few minutes ago had slipped and fallen to die. What nonsense! The harsh metallic sound from the microphone made even the name of the dead person indistinct, talk less of the details. A person had just left everything behind for good and there were so few details of his death. As if simply taking part in the funeral prayers would absolve one of all responsibility and the loss incurred by the death would be cleared.
At night, when I lifted the mosquito net to climb into bed, I felt as though I was entering a grave.
Would I ever be able to leave again? Even during the day, perhaps because it was located on the landing and its length was three times its width, my room looked like a coffin. Opening the lid of this coffin, without any notice, my sister entered in haste.
“What's up? Why are you here?”
“I just came. I want to live, Apa!”
“You want to live? Oh. So does everyone else.”
“No one wants me to study. I want to study.”
“If you want to study, you should. But will that let you live?”
“Can't I live on that?”
“No. I mean, no one lives forever. That's all.”
Avoiding my death-thoughts, my sister quietly went over to the kitchen. After moving the containers of rice, lentils, and spices around, she put on some khichuri to cook. I buried my face in the pillows and lay down on my stomach. How bothersome! She wasn't going to let me alone.
For the last six months, I had been suffering from an unidentified illness. The doctors couldn't tell what it was. If one
diagnosed a tumor in my ovary, another said it was a stomach ulcer. Another announced that a girl of this age could contract both problems simultaneously. I couldn't decide which to treat first.
I had spent many days lying in bed, and then surrendering myself for some time now at the doctors' chambers every evening, hoping for a decision one way or another. The doctors must have guessed my intention and kept telling me different things each day, leaving me hanging – as though I had been their enemy in a previous life. They would then scratch the name of one test on their writing pad one day, another test the next. The pathology centers were no less. Reports began flooding in. The doctor would open the envelop with the test results and smile to himself. He would hold up the x-ray plates and look at me askance. Once the envelop-tearing and looking askance was over, the questions began. Intimate questions. I figured that they thought I was a mental patient. I was glad to escape.
At dinner, my sister tried to piece together my distant past, the broken ties of my relationships. As she ate, she narrated the stories of those who had died in our city and how; how many new babies were born and what they looked like. In fact, she described the births and deaths of the decade-old city.
I didn't care much about births – they were dull. But the news of deaths made everything go haywire. So many deaths – and that too of known people, as we ate the khichuri made from the stale spices and bug-infested rice and lentils. I can't stop her. If I asked her to stop talking about deaths, she may start with the births. That was monotonous, painful.
All this time I had thought that I was in my mother's womb a decade ago. Then my life alone began, as I stepped forth uncertainly. Tripping, falling on my face – all this happened in this one decade. The time before this was dark, embalmed in the safety of the womb, memory-less. Her reminiscences made me nauseous. I threw water onto my half-eaten plate and got up. I don't dare look to see her reaction. Who knew which injury the restless girl would uncover next?
I remembered after a long time how Ma would give me all the news about our small town when I went home from the hostel. Who knew that anyone could give such harsh descriptions? There was not much difference between my mother and my sister. And yet, Ma had spent her whole life clinging to her home. It wasn't easy for me to come close to a dangerous sister like her who defied all odds to study. What did she want? What did she really want?
At my unspoken question, she opened her suitcase and got out her books. She removed my papers from the table and arranged her books in rows, along with her cosmetics. I walked out to the verandah when I saw her take over my desk.
I had found this cave-room after a long search in the city. The attached verandah was precious. I never expected it. When I stood there, I felt as though I had discovered a new continent after many days of depression and rebellion, many stormy nights; I had landed on an unknown yet valuable space. When the landlord instantly agreed to my tenancy, I was afraid at first that he might impose himself on me at night. He might, under some pretext, even knock on my door during the day. A week or so passed with this anxiety. And then it so happened that I came fearlessly to the verandah to watch the kalboishakhi. When the howling wind was shaking the city and making it dance, I was standing on the verandah of my fifth-and-a-half story floor. I had let the perfect trails of blue-pea flowers sweep over the verandah grille. With the bougainvillea and the morning glory, the verandah became my home, my refuge. For as long as my new abode felt satisfactory, the bougainvillea and morning glory bloomed. Then, without my noticing, as I contemplated on how and when I had been betrayed by men, that my distrust in them was not unfounded, my garden began to shrivel up and die. Except for the blue-peas.
My sister loved cleaning up. Perhaps she would restart my garden. As I stood on the verandah, I decided that I would start going to the office again tomorrow. How long could I stay away on sick-leave? Besides, I needed money too.
When I came home from work one day, my sister came forward and asked, “Have you become a Hindu?”
“Why? Who told you that?”
“Look at this container of shidoor, this incense burner, these Ganesh-Durga statues. What are they doing in your room? You have returned as a Hindu after being with that man.”
What could I say? I was about to pick up the Blackstone Ganesh and terracotta Durga from the waste paper basket and place them on the bookshelf when, as if to herself, my sister said, “Hindu men are very bad. Why? Weren't there any Muslim men in the country?”
I became suddenly furious. Spinning around, I saw the Blackstone Ganesh and terracotta Durga rolling around on the floor near her feet and I screamed, “Who told you that Hindu men are bad? You have to tell me who told you this! Where did you learn such things? Hindus, Muslims, they're not communal like you. Who told you I haven't met any Muslim men, huh?!”
Perhaps I shouldn't have made that last comment. It wasn't relevant. It was as though I had consciously stepped into her trap. My sister, very cleverly, immediately pounced and replied. Like a snake, she hissed, “And may I know how many men you have known?” How cold and ruthless her look was. Her face changed. Her teeth clenched, exactly like mine. We had both inherited this from our father. I stared at those teeth showing between her explosive lips. She continued in the same vein, “You live alone, independently, and that's why I want to know.”
Whom had I sheltered in my home? Who was she, really? My sister? Or someone else in disguise?! Her anger was surprising. Just as there was no escape from my mother's table, she too cooked and called me to eat at night. We sat together, eating. Neither of us spoke. She had blustered at me before we sat to eat, telling me all kinds of stories. But, as soon as we sat, she seemed to drift off into her own thoughts. I spoke first. “Listen, you know, this room is bad luck. It's impossible to think straight here. Let's look for a place together. A two-bedroom apartment. You'll stay in your room and I'll stay in mine.” Her indifferent laugh told me she had already rejected the idea. I thought if she stayed with me in this one room, she would burn me out. That's what she'd come for. After dinner, she forcefully picked up my empty plate with hers and, without any show of emotion, said, “I'm thinking of returning the money you gave me for my college admission.”
I was thunderstruck. I thought I didn't understand what she meant. Hesitantly, I asked, “To whom?” Without a word, as though she didn't hear me, she went into the bathroom and locked the door.
My sister had been writing a letter to someone for a few days. She would turn on the table lamp and start writing once I went to bed. In the morning, there would be a pile of discarded drafts of the unfinished letter. Who was she writing to so hesitatingly? I didn't have the guts to ask. My sister was waiting for me to step on her tail so she could attack me and spread her poison. So I stepped warily. We don't talk much. One day when I asked how she liked her college, she answered nonchalantly and purposefully turned a page in her book. I knew she was pretending to study but her heart wasn't in it. I couldn't guess the reason for her restlessness.She was an expert in cooking and household chores. How surprising! Abba was so strict – how did she become so careless about her studies? “So, doesn't Abba scold you all any more about studying?” In response, she said, “The more laws, the more flaws.” The next moment, she shut me up, as if on purpose, by asking, without raising her head from her book, “Why did you get divorced? The way you're living now - is this any way to live?”
Only a few days later did I discover why she was so concerned about my life. And then I felt like banging my head against the wall. I don't know why I didn't figure it out earlier – why I didn't think of it on the very first day. My sister had come to me just to make a little joke out of my life. What a fool I've been! I thought I had come this far after going through so much and this was just my little sister. Where the doctors had failed to revive me from my death-like surroundings, my sister had succeeded. She had set sail with me to Paradise on Behula's raft. I was in mid-sea now. There was no bank in sight. She had taken me far from shore before telling me, one by one, all the secrets she had harbored for so long.
My sister had got married about a year ago without our parents' consent. The boy was from our town. They had not been seeing eye to eye for a few months now. So she had become frustrated and come to me. Had she not uttered the word “frustrated” with such endearment, I would never have guessed even at my age that this “frustration” was something one would wish to return to repeatedly. And so, she had written letter after letter of her own accord, made him swear and agree over the phonethat she could return. The very next day.
As her older sister, I could have asked her a myriad questions: what kind of person is the boy, what does he do, what if you become frustrated with him again, will you be able to handle it? But I never thought of anything. And even if I had, would I have said anything? The tail was still laid out. So, even though I knew she was leaving the next day, I asked, as if to remind her, “You said you wanted to study. Won't you go to college anymore?” My sister flashed me her smooth, clenched teeth and said, “Why college? I go to university over there. My studies have suffered so much in these few days!”
I stood up in shock. I don't know who shook me up or why. My head began to spin like before. When I stood holding the grille of the verandah, everything below me grew dark. I hadn't realized how, within the space of the last few days, she had pushed aside my monotony, my loneliness.
I kept waking up every few minutes during the night. Each time I saw my sister putting something in its place. She had just the one suitcase – it shouldn't take her so much time to pack. Actually, my sister was putting everything in order for me before she left. Who was she doing it for? What would I do with a neatly ordered household? I seemed to think this but, getting confused, I fell back to sleep.
I woke to her mild call. My sister was sitting by my head. She got up quickly when I opened my eyes. She was wearing a pitch black gown that came down to her knees. I looked at her face – only to find a mask. With one black-clad hand, she picked up her suitcase, the other she held out to me and spoke for the first time, “Let's go.” I was about to ask where when she lifted her black hand to her masked lips and motioned for me to be quiet. We left the door wide open and stepped out. How strange! We didn't need to climb down any stairs from the fifth-and-a-half floor. How was this possible? It had to be a dream. Just as such a mild suspicion began to grow, it occurred to me that whether this was a dream or not, the truth was that my sister was leaving. I shouldn't waste time thinking of such nonsense at a time like this. I didn't even have time to think about whether we took the lift down or not – we were in a great hurry.
We walked side by side in the soft light of the dawn – she seemed to be my little two or three-year-old frock-clad sister who had cried and made our parents agree to allow her to go with me. The only difference now was that she no longer held my hand. I couldn't even touch her – she was like my shadow, a dark and silent statue. She was neither one step ahead nor one step behind – she walked in sync. Why was she wearing this disguise? Why the mask? Couldn't she walk outside without them? As these thoughts crossed my mind, we came to the tunnel where the road was being dug up. Ahead lay the indescribable open mouth of the cave. A thin light emanated from the lightbulb hanging from the bamboo pole next to it. She jumped into the cave-womb first. I followed immediately. It was a bottomless pit and I felt as though I was flying in the depths. I was so scared that I couldn't help but ask, “Where are we going?” Just then I heard, not in the voice of my sister, but as though from my own throat, a voice tearing through, echoing off the walls and inside the mosquito net, one word – to Paradise.
Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor of the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. She also freelances as an editor and translator.