All that matters
Maya sat at her desk, letting her head rest on the hard, wooden surface for a brief moment before remembering someone might see. But it was hard to force her head up, it felt like a hundred kilos. Her eyes burnt behind the heavy eyelids; she didn't know if it was from the lack of sleep last night, the throbbing nerve on her temple, or her desperate urge to scream. But Maya wouldn't scream, she was not that person. Heaving a long, weighted breath, she sat up in her chair. One of these days, she thought.
The office started to clear out once the overhead clock struck five. Maya sensed the usual chatter diminishing but she was yet to wrap up. There was a little brown and black knock-off leather photo frame sitting on her desk next to her computer. A little girl, with cherub cheeks and a radiating smile looked back at her. The child's curly black hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail but the flyaway baby hairs were always harder to tame, not unlike hers. Maya's hair though, a former replica of the beautiful lush curls that she saw before her, used to fall almost to her waist. They barely reached her shoulders now. Her hair was always tied up in a bun, with stray strands coming loose from time to time. Reaching out to readjust the photo frame, Maya became overwhelmed with the need to go home to her daughter. She looked at the clock on the office wall, it was a little past eight. Today is Thursday, she remembered. I'll just finish up the rest at home.
There was a suffocating lack of windows at her workplace so she did not realise when it had started raining. Hurrying down the stairs and standing in front of the towering office building, Maya debated indulging in an Uber, scrutinising the downpour. It wasn't the rain that was the trouble, she got drenched every other day during the monsoon season. The wind, however, was going to give her trouble on her walk to the bus stand. She decided that her money was better spent elsewhere.
Bunching her saree in one grip and pulling it above her ankle, she started walking towards the bus stop. Sure enough, the heavy wind felt as though it would sweep her away, the umbrella in her hand acting like a parachute. Her dark-maroon silk saree was soaked through and dripping by the time she stood in line for the ticket. Inching closer to the counter and hugging her bag to the chest, she wished she could stop reading the nasty thoughts of peering men around her. She fished out her wallet from her bag and checked her phone for the time. There were three missed calls and several messages.
Even at 9:30 PM, the Thursday traffic was insane. The bus arrived twenty minutes later than it had the day before. Forcing herself through the crowd that had already gathered at its narrow gate, Maya found a seat towards the back of the bus beside an old, haggard man. She quickly snaked her way to it and sat reeling in the collective stench of the sweat inside the overcrowded and unventilated compartment. The traffic around her seemed to have no intention to move at all and the men inside the bus continued to push and shove as though they would run home given the chance.
"Typical Dhaka," Maya murmured, hoping no one in the bus heard her speak English. The man standing next to her was so close that his thigh constantly kept rubbing against her shoulder. It had been a long day, Maya's energy to put up with a possible argument had long been depleted. Instead, she scooted over on to the other side and leaned against the headrest.
Letting her eyes rest for a minute, she sternly reminded herself that she must finish the work she was bringing home over the weekend. Her mind wandered to the consequences if she failed: an unsavoury confrontation with her boss; backhanded taunts for weeks and ill-hidden sarcasm staining his sympathy towards her. She shuddered picturing the way the beefy pompous man swaggered his way towards her desk every morning, noon and evening. Not as though I could avoid that even if I did manage to finish my work, she thought as her stomach tied itself into a knot.
The man's smug laughter from earlier that day flooded her mind. He seemed amused at Maya struggling to find an excuse to get out of his proposition to have dinner together on Friday.
"I actually have this family thing on Friday, so I'm not sure. You know how these family gatherings at the in-laws' can get," Maya had said. "But I'll definitely try," she added.
Maya winced remembering how she turned back to her computer then, away from her boss's eyes who stood towering over her and digging a hole into her blouse. She had readjusted her saree over her chest.
"You better,' he had said. 'You know what's on the line, don't you? Eid is coming up." He laughed and winked at her.
"Ey Shahbag, Shahbag, Shahbaaag!" the bus conductor's announcement yanked her back to consciousness. She stood up, rubbing her eyes and fixing her saree. It was still a 10-minute rickshaw ride home from there but stepping down from the bus, she saw that the rain had ceased, just the roads were still wet, interspersed with muddy puddles. She hoped she reached home before her daughter fell asleep though; Thursday nights were movie nights.
Hailing a rickshaw, Maya got in and leaned against its hood. Exhaling deeply, she reminded herself that her day was almost over.
As she entered the rusted iron gates of her apartment, she braced herself to get an earful for being late. Again. But while she climbed the six flights of stairs, there was a familiar rush of excitement, the one she felt every Thursday night. A little heaviness seemed to weigh her limbs down knowing that her mother-in-law would start as soon as she entered through the door and her husband would look away, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore.
Fixing her saree, she remembered to plaster a smile on her face before ringing the doorbell. Her daughter's eyes would widen as she'd take out the new Lion King DVD, she knew. Maya felt her heart pump warmth through her shivering body; she couldn't help but smile.
An eight year old girl in a yellow dress and two tightly done pigtails opened the door. She was already jumping up and down.
"Did you bring it, Mommy? Did you briiiing iiiiittt??" Hiya almost yelled with excitement.
Maya grinned and handed the DVD over to her daughter. Seeing her daughter's sparkling eyes, everything else around her disappeared. Her condemning days held no candle to this little girl who sat at home waiting for her mother every night. Her boss's sleazy advances, her in-laws' constant complaints, even her husband's discontent — Maya didn't mind any of it anymore. As long as she did her part and made sure her daughter's innocence remained cradled in fairy tales, as long as she didn't have to grow up in a world like hers, this woman was would to face it all again.
Maisha Syeda is a writer, painter, and a sub-editor at Daily Star Books.