Foreign calls were cheap these days. So the parents had whined and cried on the phone: how could they bear their only son living abroad away from them? Who would carry their coffins on his shoulder? They had four daughters, of course – daughters who ignored their own homes to shop for the parents, take them to the doctor's, pay the bills, but they couldn't shoulder the coffins. So the son came right back. And as soon as he arrived, he took the reins from his old father, and almost came to blows with him!
Did Ismat see these things with her own eyes? This wasn't a case of the doctor's theory of thought-sharing, concerned only with the ears or mind. So I had no reason to disbelieve my old friend's eyes. I was sad. It hadn't been a month since his return, and already the brother had taken back all the gifts he had brought for his sister – the hair dryer, the perfume, and everything else. Ismat would have nowhere to go should her parents die. The brother would kick her out of the house with just the clothes on her back. The sisters may hold each other and cry for a bit though. Our shadows looked ghostly in the moonlight and I wanted to run away again…
If one tiptoed along the muddy path under the shade of the bamboo grove, one would arrive at a yard that was as clean as the palm of a hand. Music played there; songs were sung: “Ghaat pichchul, pantha picchul, picchuliya maati go/ Pichchla ghaate achhar khaiya/ Bhainga ailam kolshi go.” [The bank is slippery; the path is slippery; slippery is the earth/ I fell on that slippery bank/ And returned with a broken waterpot.]
“You actually want to run away.”
Ismat's words startled me. She cackled like a mad woman. “Am I a tiger or a bear?”
Seeing my grim face, Ismat stopped laughing and looked at her watch. It wasn't even eight yet, so the question of leaving didn't arise. Perhaps she was thinking about going to Shathi's. Seemed like she had given up on Cousin Saira's place.
“What kind of girl is Saira, by the way?” I was curious. I'd heard a lot about her but never met her in person.
“Good.” Ismat's voice dropped. “But all sheltered-- relatives are forbidden to walk even to the shop at the end of the alley to recharge their phones. They must take the car.”
Ismat, after all, was the first cousin of a rich man's wife. Even the security guards at the house wouldn't stand it if they walked. And yet, this honorable relative of the rich man was sleeping in a medium-sized room in the servants' quarters with the maids. These were the so-called elite of Gulshan.
Ismat, though, had no problem with the servants' quarters. She had managed to get the old maidservant, Lal Chan's Ma, on her side. They had an unwritten agreement – Lal Chan's Ma would turn on the lights before dawn to pray, Ismat would smoke whenever she felt like it, and the two young maids would watch movies and Hindi songs and dances on the 14” black and white TV whenever they wanted. If anyone had a problem with this contract, they could leave.
I found the contract quite agreeable too. If Ismat had been well, she would have been teaching at a university, but it seemed like she had adjusted quite well to living in the servants' quarters. But ultimately, it was Ismat who had been forced to leave that house. Why? Sternly, I said, “That Saira is the root cause of all this!”
Ismat was astounded. Saira had no inkling of the contract. The girl was naturally very helpful. She wasn't so heartless that she would abandon the maid who had brought her up just because she had aged. The old woman would eat and pray on her bed, and there were the two young maids, and Ismat of course, who would help her to the bathroom behind the kitchen to shit or pee, and bathe. Lal Chan's Ma lived in style. Her son in the village was to be sent money in the first week of the month. No matter how rich someone is, they might still have some problems, but if the money was late by a day or two, tempers flared. When it came to calculating the days of the month, Lal Chan's Ma never made a mistake, even though she sometimes said her morning prayers twice because she forgot she had already prayed. If there was any delay in helping her to the bathroom, she would strike not only Asma and Rozina, but Ismat as well, with her palm hand fan. This palm hand fan was not in the contract. So Ismat would cry out in fear, “I'm not Asma or Rozina! I'm Munni!” Ismat's nickname jogged the old woman's memory – “Oh, you're Mozammel Shaheb's young daughter, Mun-ni. I thought you went abroad. When did you come back?” The fan would drop from her hands and the old woman would fall on the bed, shivering, instead of going to the toilet.
“Oh, how ungrateful I am! I struck Mozammel Shaheb's young daughter! These hands will rot with leprosy for that!”
It was the same all over the next day.
“So the main culprit is that shameless woman, Lal Chan's Ma?”
No, not her. Not even Asma or Rozina. If they could, they would hold Ismat high on their shoulders and dance. Who but Munni Afa could have arranged for them to watch TV day and night? Was it then the fault of Saira's husband who, like Boro Dulabhai, had some revolting ideas which he didn't act on but was found guilty through thought-sharing? And it wouldn't be surprising even if he did do anything. Anything was possible for a man who had suddenly become a member of the elite in Gulshan with black money in his hands.
Aloud, I said, “I think Saira's husband is the real culprit here.”
(The last installment will be published in the next issue).
Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor of the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. She also freelances as an editor and translator.