Every morning it’s the same story. She is the first one to wake up at the sound of alarm. No matter how late she goes to bed or how little she sleeps at night, she has
no choice but leave the bed the moment the alarm goes at 5. Before entering the bathroom she wakes up Keya. Not a hard task at all, since she is usually up at the first call. Doesn’t make any fuss about it. She is only nine, yet she will have you think she is a seasoned adult in the head. There would be no problem if there were ten of her, such a good-natured girl she is. But alas, good-natured girls don’t come in pairs. Just look at the younger one, Kheya. She is the opposite of Keya. Waking her up in the morning is a chore, a real battle. Let alone responding to your first call she won’t move even after ten. You have to shake her whole body to make an impression. Then she will open her eyes for a second only to close them up right away. Champa sets aside a quota of full fifteen minutes every morning just to have Kheya out of bed. Sometimes she gets so frustrated. When is this girl going to grow up and bring closure to this tiresome routine every day, she wonders. She is not a little baby any more, a month past her fifth birthday. One would hope she would show some improvement, but no, not this spoiled little brat. Champa enters the bathroom leaving Kheya crying at the top of her voice. Screaming would be a more appropriate word. She always worries about her neighbors knocking on her door to complain about the noise. But what can she do? Sitting with her trying to calm her down would be a waste of time. She has to run her life on a very tight schedule. She gets in and out of the bathroom in a little under ten minutes. She must rush to the kitchen to get the girls’ cereal on the table, boil the eggs, toast the bread and spread the butter and jam on them. Finally she prepares her own breakfast, usually a dry toast and a cup of tea. The hardest part of her morning ritual is getting the lunch bags ready for the three of them. First, Kheya. She has to be taken to the Daycare by 7. It’s not a city-run daycare nor is it a fully equipped professional facility. One Bengali lady takes care of five children in her own apartment, for a small fee. It saves a lot of money, and the service is very good. Kheya feels very comfortable there, and has the added advantage of learning to speak some Bengali. It’s also very convenient because the lady lives in the next building, so there’s some money saved on the bus fare.
After Kheya’s lunch Champa gets on with Keya’s. She tries her best to pack different foods on different days, keeping an eye on the need for a balanced diet as well as a change of taste. If it is peanut-butter sandwich today, perhaps tomorrow it is chicken or beef sandwich, hard-boiled eggs, donuts or hamburgers on other days. A bottle of milk, an apple and a banana are the daily staples. Keya’s good nature shows even in her eating habits. She will eat quietly whatever she is given. No complaint. Complaining is just not her nature. It becomes a bit worrisome for Champa, sometimes. Doesn’t the silly girl know how little the society cares for girls, how little attention people are willing to give to what the girls want to say or do? On top of that if you don’t open your mouth to let them know how you feel then how are you going to survive? The thought makes her want to cry a bit. Pent-up emotions want to well up inside of her, but she regains her control.
It’s no time to emote. There is no room for emotions in her day-to-day life. She sets her mind on her own lunch at last. No problem there—that’s the easiest task of all. She can do it while sipping at her tea-cup. A sandwich and an apple, that’s all she needs for lunch. She doesn’t care much for variety, or taste. Enjoying her food with relish is a forgotten idea for her. All she needs is the bare minimum to sustain life. Sustain her life is something she must continue to do, for the sake of her two little girls. They are the reason she goes on living the way she does. They are the centre of her universe, her dream, her future. As far as she is concerned, the world doesn’t exist beyond these two girls. She is a lonely traveler on a desolate road. She is a single mother.
Champa must report for work by 8 sharp. First she drops off Kheya at the lady’s apt. in the next building, then rushes for the subway station holding Keya’s hands. Her school is close by, just a short ten minutes walk. After school Keya comes home alone, enters the building without anyone’s help, gets up to the fifth floor on the elevator, and unlocks the apt. door with the key tied to her waist band. A little child as she is, she has the wits to turn the keys even if there were no lights in the hallway. Champa can’t get back before 6. She leaves the office at 4:30. First she gets on a bus that drops her off at the train station 15 minutes later. Sometimes, in the rush hour jam, the bus doesn’t stop to take anymore passengers. Then she starts walking, as briskly as she can. She can’t afford to miss the 4:55 train. It’s a good 25 minutes ride on the subway to her neighborhood station. She pushes her way through the crowd to reach the apt. building where Kheya has to be picked up. It’s a great blessing for her that the daycare lady doesn’t get annoyed if she is late a minute or two, never makes a sullen face. She herself has 3 children of her own. The girl in the middle is almost Kheya’s age. When the other children leave she just keeps the two of them busy with toys. If they get bored with toys she opens up her kitchenware for them to play with. Champa feels infinitely grateful to her—she is such an angel. She can’t imagine how she would have managed if this kindly lady wouldn’t agree to take care of Kheya for the full day. She would then be forced to take the child to a public Daycare two miles away. But they wouldn’t keep her after 4 in the afternoon. What would she do if that was her only choice? How could she keep her job with the Company? They wouldn’t listen to her daycare problems. They would just find somebody else. Getting a job these days is already such a big problem. On top of that she is a single mother from a remote land called Bangladesh. Thank God, she was smart enough to go to a computer school right after her arrival in this country. It’s not exactly an executive job, no more glamorous than a junior office secretary, but enough to put dinner on the table. You can’t get rich with this income, of course, but a family of two little kids and an adult can survive with that. The rent takes $500. It would have been 800/900 if she had gone for a downtown apt. near her work. This area is, of course, not as clean and tidy as the fashionable downtown ones, but it has its advantages. Because the inhabitants are mostly new immigrants it has lots of ethnic stores and other facilities. You can speak in Bengali. The girls don’t have to feel lonely and left-out on traditional festive occasions. Champa herself has no great longing for Bengali contacts, but it gives her comfort knowing that in times of urgent need she may be able to count on some help from her community.
She spends $300/m on daycare, which is cheap compared to professional facilities. And yes, there is one more thing she does that others might frown at: she sends Keya to a ballet school at a cost of another $ 300/m. She didn’t have to do that. Bengali parents usually have no love for ballet. They would rather teach Tagore songs, Indian dance, piano-violin. The more conservative ones would take their kids to religious schools hoping to shield them from western influence. And, of course, the girls must learn to be good at homemaking. But Champa is different. Her fascination was with ballet. She herself wanted to be a ballerina like Margot Fontaine and Martha Graham. There was no way she could get her wish, but the dream stuck in her head. Now she wanted to give that opportunity to her own little girl. This is not Bangladesh. There are no built-in inhibitions here. It is more important to be a good human being here than to be a good Muslim. There is nothing to prevent a girl from going to a ballet school here. Yes, there are raised eyebrows and hushed gossip about it in the Bengali community here too, but she just doesn’t care. She didn’t come to this country to please her fellow Bengalis, rather to free herself from those mental shackles. She is here to raise her girls the way she likes.
There are a few more Bangladeshi families in Champa’s apt. building. Most of them are new arrivals—over the last 2-4 years, no more. There are some 15 more Bangladeshi families in the adjacent building. It’s rough going, for many of them. Hard life. Small businesses or low-paying jobs, or nothing at all. Most of them are very religious. They say their prayers 5 times a day, fast through the whole month of Ramadan, set up regular prayer meetings in their apts., and are very particular about teaching their children how to read the Holy Quran. Their women put their veils on them or cover their heads with the traditional headscarfs. There are a number of them who give birth to a child every alternate year. And every other year they go home for a visit. Their ambitions do not seem to be much more than eating halal meat, raise money for the masjid fund, avoid contact with the infidels, keep the children out of reach of western culture, and above all, earn enough money to send home to pay for a new mosque in the ancestral village, and a multistoried apt. building in a fashionable area of Dhaka. They embrace each other at Eid prayers, fight each other on election days, and write slanderous letters to the local Bengali weeklies vilifying their opponents. It is this community that Champa tries to stay away from. They have no clear understanding of what ‘single mother’ means—they probably think it is some kind of a strange creature from another planet. Even if someone tries to explain to them what it really is, they are not likely to change their view that a single mother is either a widow or a fallen woman. In their minds a husband would never divorce a nice woman, so she must be bad. Champa knows that she is not going to fit in with these people. Everywhere she goes she is an outsider. The women stop talking as soon as they see her, as if she is a man they do not know. Interestingly though, the men have a curious attitude toward her. They are quite willing to come forward and try to stick up a conversation, provided their wives do not catch them talking to her. They feel attracted by her haughty style. Champa is not an arrogant person at all, but the way she dresses, the confidence she exudes while talking to people, even the way she walks, seem to give them an impression of arrogance. She seldom wears a sari. She can’t go to work in a sari, anyway. They are not going to like it. Yes, they adore saris as an evening dress in formal parties but not while you are working. She got so used to not wearing saris that even at home she keeps her jeans on. Besides, how can a working woman who has to walk everyday on city pavements, in rain in summer and a foot-deep snow in winter, manage to keep her sari on? Sometimes she doesn’t mind wearing a skirt, which shocks the neighborhood women from Bangladseh. In their eyes she is a shameless, ultramodern, immodest woman who is a bad influence on their kids. They try to avoid her. They are convinced that Champa has shed her Bengaliness in every possible way, maybe even looks down upon other Bengalis.
How ignorant they are indeed. In reality she is probably more Bengali than any of these women. She never lost sight of her Bengali roots. She speaks in Bengali with her daughters all the time. She reads Bengali rhymes and stories every night to them. Teaches them how to read and write Bengali every Sunday. She herself tries to stay in touch with Bengali culture as much as she can. After the girls go to bed she sits down with a Bengali book or paper, or puts on her favorite Tagore song on the CD player. At home in Bangladesh there was a time when she would write poems in Bengali, even got some of them published in the daily ‘Jonokontho’ and monthly ‘Shaili’. Her neighbors do not know these things, nor does she have any desire to let them know. If gossip and backbiting is what makes them happy, let them be happy. She is not going to be bothered with these petty things.
And yet, she can’t completely deny that things do hurt at times. She has the same flesh and blood as everyone else. She has feelings. When the other ladies are visiting each other every day chewing betel leaves in their cheeks right in front of her eyes, talking for hours on the telephone, exchanging home-cooked delicacies, but never bother to drop by her apt., never stop to say hello in the hallway, yes, that can be a bit hurtful. She feels particularly bad for her two little girls. Most of their friends are nonBengalis. Many are from India, Srilanka, Bosnia, Egypt, Nigeria. It is the Bengali children who seem to deliberately avoid them. There are some exceptions, of course. That kindly daycare lady is one such exception. Only the other day she came with a jar of homemade morabbas that her mother sent from home. She said she couldn’t bear to think of eating them without sharing with Keya and Kheya. How terribly sweet of her to think that way. It brought tears to Champa’s eyes. There are one or two more such exceptions in the Bengali community. And that’s what she is counting on for a bit of mental support.
The funny thing is that occasionally a Bangladeshi man or two will make an unexpected appearance at her door. There was one gentleman whose wife had gone home for a visit leaving him alone for a couple of months. One day he came along with a bag of two kilos of freshly cut beef in his hand. Looking very meek and humble he offered a lame excuse in his heavy provincial accent: this is a small present from his meat shop for the two little girls. Pure halal meat, he assured her. Champa couldn’t remember having ever met this person. It was clear that he was the owner of that shop. Champa politely asked how much it would cost her. He said he couldn’t live with himself if he took money from her. It was meant as a token of his love for the children. But she insisted. She couldn’t, wouldn’t accept his gift without paying for it. That was her final word. With that she was about to close the door on him. Poor man had no choice but to accept the price. It was not clear from his face if his real objectives were satisfied. He probably didn’t expect to be rejected in this manner. Nobody had to tell Champa that his real intentions were more than an honest gesture of kindness for the two fatherless girls. She had no trouble figuring out the real reason for this unexpected visit at her door. What an irony! Even a butcher believes a single mother is easily available.
There was another occasion when a smart looking, well-dressed man came calling with a bouquet of flowers and a box of chocolates. When she opened the door he bowed in a very courteous manner, announcing that the flowers were for her, and the chocolates for the girls. Before she could protest he started giving a reasonable explanation for his visit. He was a tenant on a tenth floor apt., he heard about her daughter’s birthday, so he couldn’t resist feeling sad for the child—having to spend her birthday with no friends and no gifts. He couldn’t bear the thought of living in the same building and letting that terrible thing happen to an innocent little girl. What’s a neighbor for, after all? Champa said a polite thank you to the man, took the bouquet and chocolates, asked the girl to say thanks to her new ‘uncle’, then shut the door on his face. She hates to be rude with anybody, but hates even more to open the door to any unaccompanied man. They are all the same. She has absolutely no intention to repeat the mistake she did once, just once, in her life.
Yes, she did open the door once to a young man. That was when she was a foolish young girl with no brains in the head, no idea of what real life means, and the hormones in her body were working on all cylinders. She didn’t want to care about future, or talk about the character of the man. She ignored the misgivings and warnings of her family. She offered herself blindly and unconditionally to the young, good-looking man hoping for eternal love, and nothing but love, which he professed with great passion. These two girls are the fruits of that love. But ill wind started blowing shortly after the birth of Kheya. In her mind, deep down, she always knew that her man was not quite the saint she thought he was. It didn’t take long for her to find out that he had a weakness for the bottle, a weakness for extramarital affairs, and quite a few other unspeakable vices. There were many nights when he didn’t bother to come home at all, especially after Kheya’s birth. Once a close friend of hers called to tell her that she saw her husband enter a fashionable hotel with his arms around a young girl’s waist. She cried a lot but said nothing to him. She felt so humiliated. But the last straw was when he disappeared completely, and the word got out that the police was looking for him as a suspect in the murder of a political enemy. She learned that her dear husband was a common criminal, a hustler and a muscleman for a political party. Fortunately for him, that was the ruling party, which saved him from a term in the jail. But it didn’t help save their marriage. They decided to split, and on her terms, not his as would be more natural in the Bangladeshi society. That’s what she wants to announce proudly to this wretched community of hers in Canada—that it was not her husband who divorced her, rather she divorced him. It was all settled remarkably amicably. The husband didn’t want custody of the children, perhaps because they were girls. If they were boys he would likely dig his heels in, and demand to take custody. Boys are assets, not liabilities, as the girls are. They can’t be sacrificed at any price.
Sometimes she can’t help admitting to herself that there are weak moments when she feels a bit lonesome. She has not lost her capacity to feel the emptiness in her life. She does crave for a bit of love, a bit of tenderness. But that’s only for a moment. She had to learn how to harden her soul, and fight off all those little weaknesses and cravings. She remembers her mother and her siblings sometimes. They wanted her so much to go back home. They always worry how she is managing all alone in a far away land with two little girls to take care of. How are you going to handle the tough life all by yourself, they asked. She tries to laugh. They don’t know how tough she is. No longer that love-sick weakling who can be easily manipulated. She has learned to stand on her own feet. She has a special dream here. A dream that has nothing to do with her personal life, but everything to do with the future of her two daughters. It is this dream that keeps her going. She doesn’t need anything else in the world. She comes from an ordinary Bengali family, but she is not an ordinary Bengali girl. She is a single mother.
June 9, 2010
(Translated by the author from his Bengali article” Single Mother” that appeared in the book Proshongo Nari)
Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান