Translated by Arifa Ghani Rahman
Ismat was very irritated at my suspicions. She lectured me on how terrible it was to guess and gossip about others without actually hearing anything with my own ears. I was ashamed. The next moment I felt scared – was this disease contagious? I had managed to pull the wool over Ismat's eyes for the last two decades and thought I had made it – but apparently not. This wasn't just a case of going to the doctor's. Looked like there would be great trouble before that.
“How's your home life?”
I slumped and stared at my dwarf-like shadow. Silent. If she now wanted to talk about why she left Saira's house, I didn't want to hear, even though that was the juiciest bit of talk all evening. Ismat was desperate. She swung the swing hard – “Hey! Are you sleeping? Tell me – how's your home life?”
The thick dwarf-like shadow scattered and shattered in the moonlight. I raised my eyes – Ismat looked animated. When Ismat used to sing in the hostel corridor on rainy days, I felt like throwing aside my books and going out in the rain right then. I could sit for exams later, but there could be no other joy than letting the rain wash over you.
My eyes looked through the mirror of the eighties and whispered – “Home life? Tolerable.”
Ismat's face grew dark. “Tolerable is good. You know that Shathi is learning to sing?”
Was this praise, or slander? What was she implying – that we were only pretending to be fine but we really were not? The mirror shattered. I hadn't met Shathi in a very long time. Ismat was still hankering after the past, but she was no longer the same. Were we still the same? Shathi had called suddenly about seven or eight years ago. Ismat should not hear of her pregnancy. I was astounded. What kind of talk was this from a woman with a husband and child? From the other end, the reply was “Ismat is never happy at any good news of ours. I think she feels hurt and cries through the night.”
Perhaps. She was a closed book – we deduced whatever we wanted to without reading between the pages.
“Don't you sing anymore?”
Ismat curled up in the chair like a cat. Irritation sounded in the clearing of her throat. I had recorded Kangalini Sufia's songs about six months ago, but would a Rabindrasangeet singer appreciate that? “Ekta mala gaitha de/Pranshokhire/More nai, more nai biya'r shuwami/ Gotokal aishase…” [Make me a garland/my dear friends/He's not dead, not dead – my wedded husband/He visited yesterday…]
A memory. The first death anniversary of a thirteen or fourteen year old grandson who would play the gypsy along with his grandmother's songs. After the prayers, Kangalini sat by the open southern window, tambourine in hand. The transformer on the electric pole stood close by. The grandson had got tangled in one of its live wires and died. Kangalini Sufia sang one song after another. Her laments rose through her voice.
These stories had already been printed in books, and yet it felt like a dream.
“Why don't you sing like before? People forget all their sorrows when they sing.” I offered Ismat my advice as we climbed down the stairs.
“I don't even read the papers.”
“The news is uncontrollable. The country is worse off than in a state of emergency.”
“There's no rape in this country, or acid-throwing, or homicide. Nothing. Seems like the street kids have forgotten how to eve-tease. The peacekeeping army is in complete control.”
Everyone enjoyed Ismat's conversation over dinner. Thank God! Even if she was crazy, she spoke fantastically and her head was clear.
The Tarabi prayers had not ended yet at the mosque next door. Perhaps I decided this because it was a moonlit night – I would take a walk and also accompany Ismat up to the main road. We walked along the silent alley, watching our shadows in front of us, and I listened to her talk. It wasn't even ten yet, but I'd have to face the canting when I returned home. Look, I'm forty-five years old. I don't have to give you any account of where I was till ten. I stopped when I saw Ismat's raised wrist towards my shadow.What a mad woman! A little further on, she stopped me again in the middle of the road – apparently, we were travelling backwards in a time machine to when we couldn't go out without permission from parents or a house tutor. It took us about fifteen minutes to make two rounds in this stop-and-go manner.
It was Eid time. The shopping malls by the roadside were decked in lights. Beautifully dressed men and women mixed with the rickshaws and cars. What a different world it was! It wasn't necessary to go to the markets anymore – everything was at our doorstep. I was dressed in my home clothes – and Ismat was in her eighties garb. We hid in the playful shadows under the mango tree. I would get her a rickshaw,then make myself scarce. A motorbike with two riders rushed out from the shadows, almost hitting us. I grabbed her hand – “Did you hear that? What they said?”
“Nope! What did they say?” Ismat looked at me, surprised.
“They asked if we'd go with them!”
“They probably thought we were street beggars.”
“”No, floating whores. Those rascals are out girl-hunting.”
When I described what had happened, everyone at home stared disbelievingly – “Did you hear this with your own ears?”
How bothersome! Everyone asked questions like a doctor.
Arifa Ghani Rahman is Associate Professor of the Department of English and Humanities at ULAB. She also freelances as an editor and translator.