The story was about two girls. One of them was called Mala, the other Jasmine. Mala was 19, likely a village girl. Girls with a name like Mala usually do come from villages. Perhaps she was a darling to her father when she was a little baby. Perhaps she was even lucky enough to go to school every morning with her braids swinging this way and that, happy as a bird. Maybe her cheeks would flush in a pair of gorgeous dimples when she laughed, like a lotus in the sun. Who knows if the village boys would line up behind her to curry her favor, just for a look, a nod, a smile. And then, something went horribly wrong. Something snapped somewhere. The Malas of the world usually meet the same fate everywhere. They appear as beams of light, disappear in clouds of mystery.
But how about Jasmine? Jasmine can’t be from any village! It’s an urban name, name of a cute little aromatic flower. In middle class Bengali homes it’s called belli or jui or chameli. One wonders why her parents would call her Jasmine instead of any of those three names. Perhaps her father was a fan of English books. Or her mother went to the Holy Cross school for her education. Or both parents used to love the English poet William Wordsworth. All those ‘maybe’s. All those tantalizing ‘maybes’ together could not save that poor girl from what appened to her in the end.
The newspapers didn’t say anything about their lives, only about their deaths. And that they both were ‘murdered savagely’. Murders are always savage, aren’t they? I haven’t heard of anyone being murdered out of love or kindness. Yet the news reporters are fond of using the phrase: savage killing. That way perhaps the act of killing becomes a bit more ‘inhuman’, for otherwise the act of killing an animal, that is committed everyday by hundreds and thousands, could also be deemed ‘savage’. Reports of ‘savage killing’ sell better than those of ordinary ‘killing’.
As I read the news I got the impression that the murders occurred quite a while back----perhaps a few days before. Rather a stale news, I suppose. Murders are so commonplace these days that yesterday’s homicides aren’t much of any news today, because today there are new murders to read about. However, the news of girls like Mala and Jasmine are always interesting because of not how they died, but how they lived. Of the two Jasmine is more fresh. Her body is still in the morgue----perhaps still warm. Her death, in particular, has created quite a stir. Everyone is ‘ah’ing and ‘ooh’ing----how sad, how awfully sad! Jasmines of the world usually do not end up in morgues like that-----unmarked and unwanted. They are accorded the normal funeral rites with due respect and solemn prayers. After the usual recital from the holy Quran and other formalities their bodies are put in graves ready to meet their creator. The bereaved family will mourn the death of their loved one, some will even wail in grief, then pray for their departed soul.
But not for this Jasmine of ours, who was lying in a cold container of the city morgue, with her eyes closed.
Why they were killed, who or how, isn’t of much interest to anybody. Not the police, not the newspaper publisher, not the reader. They all love to read about their death, but not much interest in the stories behind them----the sordid stories of their pathetic lives. Some may even be thinking: served them well----they deserved it. They are dark spots in society that should be removed, anyway. None will shed a tear for them. All they are concerned about is their bodies---their dead and filthy bodies. You can’t keep them in the morgue forever. No funeral home is going to accept their bodies for fear of reprisal from the pious communities around the area. It’s a prostitute, they will say, you can’t possibly put her alongside our loved ones! They are fallen girls, for heaven’s sake.
‘Patita’ is the Bengali equivalent of ‘fallen girl’. It’s lovely word, especially with the all-important vowel ‘a’ in the end of patita,that signifies, unmistakably, a female. Interesting that written in English alphabets you can pronounce the word ‘Patita’ in any one of the two ways: ‘patitau’, meaning a fallen male (or it can even mean an inanimate object that has fallen), and ‘patita’,which means the deadly thing----a fallen female. This is one word where one vowel, one tiny alphabet, rather how you pronounce it, makes the world of difference. It expresses the misogynistic attitudes of the entire society. The discrimination, the dominance, the cruelty, everything. Just a lousy vowel.
Interesting, isn’t it, that a male who may be fallen the same way as a female, is never called a ‘fallen man’. Nobody calls a man ‘fallen’ who may rob others of everything they had, terrorizes innocent people, becomes ultra-rich by deliberately defaulting on bank-loans. At best, he may be called a criminal, a pariah, but never a ‘patitau’. In fact, so warped and crooked are the rules and norms of the society that it is the very criminals that are often allowed to become the venerable haji’s (ones who did their obligatory pilgrimage at Mecca) and honorable members of society. But God forbid, if you are a female, then you are marked girl, a bad girl, a ‘fallen girl’, forever. No redemption or rehabilitation for you. Our righteous society will not tolerate the fall of a girl’s character----her chastity is a nonnegotiable commodity.
To think of it, it’s a lovely word, after all----‘patita’. Rhymes beautifully with ‘Kabita’ (poetry) or ‘Namita’ (sublime), or ‘Banita’ (a cute girl). Perhaps this is why the gentlemen prefer to call the ‘fallen girls’ ‘Barbonita’, meaning a girl who lives outdoors, just to make it sound a bit more polished and poetic. High society gentlemen really know how to use their language in the most civilized way.
I’d think Patita could have been the name of a beautiful flower. Or that of a little bird with multicolored wings. Couldn’t it be the name of dimly lit star in the sky? At the very least, like the melancholy willows by the river Thames in England?
But alas, in our poor country, ‘patita’ isn’t the name of a flower nor a bird or a pretty little girl, just a poor little girl who has been cheated out of a decent life by everyone in the society. A cursed body and a rotten fate combined to send her off the slippery path of ruin and self-destruction. ‘Patita’ is the name of a cruel game, a game created by men who forced their unwilling women to be their partners. Like the muscular slaves in the old Roman prisons who were forced to fight each other to kill or die-----just as an entertaining spectacle for the gentry in the high balconies of the big stadium. In this murderous game the male never loses, and the female never wins. They must fight to the end----until they breathe their last. Just the way have died our two little girls in the news-----Mala and Jasmine. The only problem the male will ever face is how to dispose of the bodies of those poor little girls, the disgusting nuisance of a problem. Should they let her rot in the morgue or bury her somewhere covertly?
According to the rules of religion the dead body must be buried within 24 hours. Rich or poor makes no difference-----there is no exception. Anyone born in a Muslim family, no matter who it is, must obey this rule. At least according to the Sharia (the Islamic law). There isn’t supposed to be any clause in the books that a sex-worker can’t be put in a grave. The clauses were created by the society in contravention of their own religion. The same society that nearly drags a helpless girl or a trapped housewife out of her home and throws her onto the street, is also the one that forbids the undertaker to bury her in a grave. Rumor has it that a certain kindhearted cleric in Narayanganj irked the local community for having the gall to let the body of a sex-worker buried in a regular cemetery. It is beyond me that we will vouch to give our life to protect the integrity of Sharia, yet will not bat an eye to show blatant disregard of it by insisting that the lifeless remains of a wretched sex-worker cannot be put in a grave.
What is a so-called ‘red district’, or a ‘whorehouse’? The first time the term was brought to my consciousness was during the Second World War. There was an army installation at Kurmitola. Big, burly soldiers of all colors----white, black, red----used to patrol in military jeeps and trucks all over the city of Dhaka (formerly spelled Dacca), where I lived with my parents. I suppose it was part of their daily drills to go around the town at least once. However, I could never figure out why these alien people would gather every evening in a dark laneway in one of the filthiest parts of town while there were so many better places to look around. Sometimes I would go to watch a soccer game with my father at Paltan soccer fields. After the game we would walk back along the long Nawabpur Rd., stopping for the Magreb prayer at the big mosque by the Ray Shahab Bazar bridge. Curiously, the mosque was between a very foul-smelling Dolai canal and the ‘dark alley’ I just alluded to. I asked my father, quite innocently, once or twice, what those strange looking soldiers were doing in that dark place. Obviously it wasn’t easy for him to give me an honest answer, so he would skate around the question by just saying that soldiers are bad people, and bad people always look for bad places. Now I understand why it was difficult to give a clear answer to his 9-yr old son. But this evasive answer would only help thicken my curiosity. Sometimes I’d try to steal a cautious look in that direction. I was both fearful and curious. It was quite amazing for me to see some of our very dark-skinned girls with their betel-red lips giggling and flirting with those huge muscular men in uniform. Some of them were even puffing away at cheap home-made biris in their lips. Naively I’d think: how happy these people must be. On the other hand I was bothered by their shameless behavior-----does one have to be so openly flirtatious with alien people just to show how happy they are?
It took me a while to get the true story. It was when one of the girls’ half-naked and blood-splattered body was lying unattended on the Nawabpur street. By word of mouth I found out that a white soldier, in a fit of drunken rage, gave her a good beating and left her on the road in a senseless state. After the incident he and his buddies rushed away from the scene on a truck, but not before running its wheels over the skull of that poor girl, thus bringing a merciful end to her miserable life. Her face was completely smashed, thus exposing her gums and teeth. Also the yellow of her brain. Not a very pleasant sight, to say the least. One kind-hearted man found a sheet to spread on her body to give a bit of cover to the child and a modicum of decency. By then the crowd became a sea of onlookers jostling for space to have a better look. Yet there was not a single person who would think of taking her to a hospital or call for medical help----none. Usually one is not supposed to let a dead body stay on the ground for too long-----somebody always comes from somewhere to pick it up. They’d try to locate her relatives. If the body happens to be that of a Hindu then proper cremation processes would be under way. And burial procedures for the Christians and Muslims. But in this case no one put a hand on her. As if she was a deadly virus, an infectious disease. You will be sick, may be, if you touch her.
With me was my friend Nizam. He was quite a bit older than me, and hence wiser, even though we were in the same class. He was much more knowledgeable in worldly affairs than I was. Basically I was just a village boy, pretty naïve in most matters of life. Nizam , on the other hand, was a city boy, a native, son of a local alderman. Hence a grown man almost since his childhood. I learned quite a few things about birds and bees from this friend -----things that your elders would blush to utter. So he threw some light on what really happened to that poor girl and for what possible reasons. She was a ‘fallen girl’-----a synonym for a sex-worker. One is given to believe that even a simple touch on her body would soil your hands that would need full ablution to wash off the impurity. When they die their bodies are not supposed to have proper burials, nor funeral services of any kind. Shocked out of my wits I would ask: then what is going to happen to her body? His answer: most of the times the professional grave-diggers would come to pick up the bodies. Don’t ask me what they would do with them. It’s anybody’s guess. Most likely they make a few rupees by selling them to the medical colleges for the students to do their studies. With the little money they earn, rather cheaply, they would celebrate getting drunk on cheap local beer.
It was more than 55 years ago. But the girl’s mauled and mangled face still haunts me at times. The very thought of it gives me a chill, a jolt of horror. Initially the horror was at the brutality of the act, but the shock and dismay originates from the callous inhumanity of the hidden story behind the story. There is nothing wrong in speculating that once upon a time a beautiful girl was born to cheer up an otherwise mirthless home in a remote village of Bangladesh. Maybe she went to school every morning, happy as a bird, with not a thing on earth to worry about, then come home to play hide-and-seek with her siblings and friends, giggling and singing with complete abandon. May be she, too, would melt away at a simple touch of love from someone near and dear to her, and sulk away like a withering dahlia when someone would utter a harsh word at her.
And then, suddenly, from out of nowhere, the clouds came to wipe out everything-----completely. The endearing touch, the giggle, the silly songs, the sulks, and all. Evaporated. The only that remained was the body. The wretched body. The worst enemy of a woman. Who knows if it was her own husband who sold her body away to a miserable creature at a high price. Or it could be that some shady lover of hers tricked her into accompanying him to a happy and care-free life in the city, used her as long as he needed, then left her like a used goods in that dark alley. This body, this miserable body of hers----could it be used like this if it were the body of a man, or even an animal? Could the military truck then run over her body in such a callous manner? They all had a feast over her body----the men in uniform, openly; the men in gentlemen’s attire, under the cover of night and dark laneway, in disguise. And then, when the light went out the poor girl’s life they all stepped back, for fear of sin in touching her skin or her hair, for fear of fire in hell that would result from getting close to the corpse. What an irony it is that the bodies of the so-called ‘straight’ people will mingle with dust in their graves to morph into useless bones, while the fallen girls’ bodies go to the medical schools for the ultimate purpose of saving lives of other ‘straight’ people. And yet, for a male-dominated society the body of a ‘fallen girl’ is as deadly as the dreadful syphilis. More importantly, it is a sin, a cardinal sin. What a strange creature we are, this male species of mine.
It reminds me of another story from my childhood, somewhat similar to this one. It’s not something I witnessed myself, but an uncle of mine did. And this is how he narrated the story:
There was a river two villages across our own. On the other side there was this cute little hamlet which didn’t exist before, but the tides seem to have dredged up the silt to create a whole landscape. At the far end of that village lived a 25-yr old girl called Bilikis with her 4-yr old son. Her husband had passed away two years before, out of malaria. Her parents were so poor that they could neither afford, nor desire, to have their widowed daughter back in their charge, with the additional burden of having to feed her child. On the other hand, the husband’s side was unwilling to continue supporting her with their son taken away by Almighty Allah as He wished. To make it worse for her the older brother of the deceased husband cleverly maneuvered to grab the property that she and her child were supposed to inherit. All she was allowed was this one-room hut by the river, at the edge of the village, plus a tiny morsel of land, apparently an act of great kindness and compassion by the family. This little act of ‘great kindness and compassion’, however, became a partial life-saver for Bilkis and her child. She could build a small shed on it for all kinds of plants-----gourd, beans, cucumber, eggplants and spinach. All by herself, with playful help from her 4-yr old boy. It was not easy for a young mother with a small child to survive on her own in a remote village. To add to the misery she was such a trusting girl, so naïve and so hopelessly gullible. Never could tell a trick from an honest offer of help.
Once it so happened that a salesman arrived in the village hoping to sell some saris, that he claimed were of high quality and low price-----saris that had the brand name of Modhupuri. Very well-known brand, and hence highly attractive to women. The good merchant somehow got word of the poor widow by the river. It might be a good idea to pay a curtsy visit to that young lady with a child, he thought. She might even be interested in buying a sari or two, especially if he offered her a hefty discount. On the pretext of giving her a varied choice he cleverly stuck up a friendly conversation with her. He told her about the sad death of his young wife last year at childbirth and how his life was completely devastated by that. Now he has no one to go back to in this world. A married younger sister was there for a while to give him some comfort, look after his day-to-day needs. But she too had to leave in a few days to be back with her in-laws. Poor man nearly came to tears telling her the sad story. Which touched Bilkis, exactly where he expected to-----her heart. She felt too moved to stay behind the curtain any longer, and in a spontaneous rush of empathy, came out to console the poor man out of his unspeakable grief. His loss brought back the fresh memory of her own loss two years before. She fully understood what he was going through. Poor man! She wanted to do something for him. At the moment all she could think of was a bowl of puffed rice with sugar cubes. Then she sent her little boy to fetch some fresh spinach from the field, so she can cook a modest meal for the man. How could she let him go without something solid in his mouth? She can’t do that to such a heart-broken man.
After a hearty meal the man got the courage to blurt out what he really had in mind. He confessed that his coming to the village for the purpose of selling saris was just an excuse----a cover-up for his real intention. Which was to obey a command from the heavens: go and rescue that poor woman in that remote island. If you help her out of her misery she will help you out of yours. So he has come here with a proposal-----to marry her. Bilkis didn’t have to think too long. It was indeed becoming extremely difficult for her to lead a lonely life having to make a living by working long hours in other people’s homes husking rice and pasting onions and garlics, chilies and turmeric. So without thinking things out coolly, she said yes. She didn’t hesitate much mainly because it was God Himself who seems to have ordained their union. So why object to his next proposal that the man gingerly put forward. It made her blush a bit, but felt no compunction to reject his advances.
Unfortunately, next morning, as she woke up she found the man in her bed had disappeared with his bag of saris.
You’d think she learned her lesson by having been burned once. But no, she didn’t. She was a classic sucker for being taken advantage of. After the sari trader came a few more merchants with all kinds of sob-stories to melt her heart away. And she fell for them the same way, again and again. She was so naïve, so utterly trusting, that she just couldn’t understand how anyone could be so deceitful. So she kept on trusting. The last player was the son of a prominent member of the village. He too came with some cock-and-bull- story to bring down her wall of resistance that she might have put on otherwise. She figured: well, he is the son of a prominent member of the community, so he can’t possibly vanish in thin air like others. So why not? She didn’t have a good reputation in the village, anyway. People have started calling her a ‘night-ferry’ -----referring to her one-night affairs with strangers in her cottage. Poor girl didn’t even understand what this epithet really meant, except that it wasn’t very complimentary. So she reasoned this way: well if she gets married to the son of a prominent member of the community then wouldn’t he be obliged to stay married at least for the sake of his father’s honor? So she gave in. Just as she gave in to the others. So the boy kept paying the nightly visits-----then leaving before daybreak. And she kept pressing him for a wedding date. And he kept pushing it off----just a few more days. Let the rains stop, the water recede, he’d say .
The water did recede one day, and so did the boy’s nightly visits, leaving her having to defend herself against the taunts and innuendos.
Then, out of nowhere, there came a big storm one day. High winds, pouring rains and incessant lightning bolts. Bilkis kept her son as tightly pressed to her body as she could for fear of him being blown away. Her little hut was shaking like crazy, on the verge of collapsing any moment. She kept uttering all the suras from the holy Quran that she could remember, trembling like a sailor alone in a sinking boat.
Suddenly, she heard a knock----a frantic knock on the door. Could it be the wind? That’s what she thought at first. But the knock was so persistent that it had to be someone at the door trying to get in. Curious, yet frightened out of her wits, she went to unhook the door slightly, just to have a look. She hoped, desperately hoped, that it was the goddamn son of that prominent member of the community. But no, it wasn’t. It was the prominent member himself! She couldn’t believe her eyes.
It is such a stormy night, Moni’s mom (Moni is her son’s name), that I thought it would be wrong to leave you alone in your flimsy little hut that can be blown away anytime. So I came to see how you are doing. With that he tried to push his way in. But this time, at long last, for once, Moni’s mom found her strength. As well as her wits. This time she didn’t let herself be sweet-talked into yet another blunder. This time she forcefully jammed the door in and closed it up on his face.
An act of great courage and defiance? Yes, but not without a consequence, which she had no clue as to what it could be.
Next day, when the weather was all quiet and sunny, the mood in the village was anything but. What’s the commotion about, she wondered. Poor girl didn’t know that nobody, but nobody, ever gets away shutting the door on the face of the prominent member of the community. It’s not a minor offence that you could atone for by just asking for mercy or forgiveness. The prominent member called an emergency meeting in his front yard with the elders of the village. There was a just one item on the agenda: the fallen girl’s trying to entice his innocent son to commit sin through an illicit affair. She has spoiled the good name of the village. She is a whore-----a disgrace for the whole community. She deserves nothing less than 40 strikes of the leather whip. First she will be tied to a couple of indoor poles, followed by a big muscular man carrying out the sentence.
Perhaps an appropriate sentence for the grievous crime of robbing the virginity of an innocent young man. At least according to the scriptures.
But Bilkis really showed her guts this time----didn’t give them the satisfaction of having their way to the end. She used her own sari and fastened it tight on a high branch of a grapefruit tree, then hung herself. Village girls like her have long known their saris and tall trees as their greatest allies in times of trouble. Especially for the ‘fallen girls’.
Her lifeless body, as usual, didn’t receive the formal rites. They put her on an empty country boat and let it float away along the tides. No one knew where the boat went----nobody cared, if the waves docked it at some remote village or was just gobbled up by the mighty river. There was a rumor that the vultures had a feast on her. Others claimed that a lightning bolt struck the boat burning it to cinders-----which the good villagers attributed to Allah’s own punishment for her sinful life. Who knows which version is true, or none at all. Everybody believes, however, that even though she was able to evade the whip she could not evade the wrath of God.
That, too, was a long time ago. Have things changed somewhat today? I do not think so. Jasmine is still in the morgue. The vultures aren’t going to get her, of course, but no one tell for sure if the lightning will not strike her, either.
Staten Island, NY,
মীজান রহমান, Mizan Rahman,