It’s final. Tuli’s marriage has been all arranged. The boy is the son of the older brother-in-law of the youngest sister-in-law of her aunt in Bradford. Good boy. Good pedigree. Owns a lot of property. Family is widely known over the entire region. Even the District Magistrate bows in respect to his father, who went to the holy pilgrimage, not once but twice. They built a mosque on the premises of the family home, that has a cemented floor and corrugated tin roof and walls. You won’t have a better family as your in-laws’ place----you will have to be born with the luck of a princess to get to marry a son there.
Everyone in the family has been notified-----wherever in the world one may be. The eldest maternal uncle in Detroit has sent his blessings. Her uncle Sultan in Los Angeles said: congratulations. Great news. Uncle Qurban has sent word from Montreal thanking Allah for her good fortune. All the elders back home in Bangladesh have sent their blessings and warm wishes. Tuli’s father is happy, as is her mother. Everybody knows about Tuli’s marriage.
Except Tuli herself!
Her parents made a calculated decision that the news need not be given to Tuli just yet. Her exams are near. It’s the final exam in her 11th grade. Poor girl is keeping late at night to prepare for it. Let her. It will only disrupt her mind if you raise the issue at this time. After all, she isn’t quite adult yet-----will be seventeen in two months. Still now she behaves like a child sometimes. Fights with her younger brothers. Sulks over birthday presents that didn’t meet her expectations. Can’t go to sleep without her teddy bear in her hands. Her mother tried a few times to take it away after she closed her eyes. But she would immediately wake up and ask for her teddy. So you see how difficult it would be to give her the news of her marriage right now.
Unfortunately she was far from an underage child-like girl in her physical size. On the contrary. Quite a stout full-grown young lady, as a matter of fact. Both in height and width. Puffy cheeks and overgrown breasts. No one will say she is only 16! Looks more like a 20 or 21- yr old. In body size, at least, she has taken after her mother’s side. Apparently her maternal grandmother was quite a robust lady also, towering over her grandfather by about a foot. In breadth as well. It was more out of concern for her unusual size that her parents were so anxious to find a suitable boy as soon as possible. Or else, they feared, no one might come forward to take her as a bride. One can’t ignore the reality that not too many eligible young Muslim men are here in this foreign land who would want to marry this not-too-attractive daughter of theirs.
Tuli. Quite a pretty name. Not her official name, though. Her official, or real name is Shaukat Ara Khatun. The nickname ‘Tuli’ was chosen by her youngest aunt (on the father’s side), who had once been a college student. One can surmise that the choice of Tuli had a college flavor. The aunt had a secret hobby----to paint portraits and landscapes with paint and brush. Behind the curtain, of course, where nobody is looking. In that house it was forbidden to draw any picture, or to sing, or listen to any radio or gramophone music----an ultraconservative Muslim family. So she would wait till everybody went to bed to light her dim kerosene lamp and her paint-and-brush kit, to start doing the stuff she loved so much. In the morning, before day-break, she would try to hide her work in a wooden chest. When Tuli was born she pleaded with her brother to let her choose a name for her new-born niece. Her choice of ‘Tuli’ was unacceptable to everyone in the family-----her parents and grandparents alike. Because it had a ‘Hindu’ sound. It wasn’t Islamic. But Tuli’s father had a very soft corner for his little sister since she was a baby-----always protecting her from their parents’ wrath and punishment. He was well aware of his sister’s weakness for a little painting, but shielded it from others as a shared secret between the little sister and a much older brother. He pleaded on her behalf to withhold her marriage till she got into an art college----but to no avail. His pleading and her loud protestations didn’t do any good----the inevitable couldn’t be stopped. In those days girls from respectable Muslim families wouldn’t think of going to an art school. That was absolutely out of question. All the loving brother could do is to give her a lot of gold jewelry at the wedding. It was just about the time of Independence. He didn’t actively participate in the war, but he had implicit sympathy for the freedom fighters----even though the family was leaning on the side of Pakistan.
This is the same man, Tuli’s father, who is anything but the same liberal man he was before. Yet he didn’t object much to the suggestion of his little sister-----a Hindu-sounding name, notwithstanding. Nicknames really didn’t matter, right? Real names are the only real thing.
Tuli likes her name a lot. It is easy. It is simple. And it is sad. It has the tears of her aunt, her broken dreams. The name is modern. Her nickname is about the only ‘modern’ thing in her life. She can’t play volleyball or basketball in school grounds like her friends do, can’t go to the movies on weekends with her friends like the other girls do, can’t even listen to the pop music like the others of her age do. These are strictly forbidden stuff for her. Her father doesn’t even like her picture in the school yearbook. She started wearing the baggy shalwar-kamij and hijab since she was ten. Her friends in school would make fun of her. They would ask, mockingly: did you lose your hair, Tuli? She hates the thing. Especially in the heat of summer. But she had no choice----no hijab, no school. They threatened to send her ‘home’ (meaning Bangladesh, of course) if she continued to balk at wearing the hijab. So she continues wearing the stuff she hates. The only thing she hates more is being sent back ‘home’, which for her would be an exile.
Tuli is not a very good-looking girl. She is dark-skinned. She is bulky if not fat. She is big. But none of these mattered to the groom’s parents. They didn’t come with the marriage proposal because of her looks, but in spite of her looks. Her passport was far more important than what she looked like. The passport had the seal of the United States of America, and that is all that mattered. She can board a plane in New York and fly to Bangladesh anytime she wants, and come back to New York anytime she pleases. Her real face is her passport-----her most important quality. No other quality is needed for marriage with that precious son of the older brother-in-law of the youngest sister-in-law of her aunt at Bradford, because this would mean freedom for him too to fly to New York whenever he pleases, and fly back whenever he wants. Tuli’s passport would mean his passport. Girls like Tuli didn’t need any other qualities----they are born as suitable girls. Rumor has it that the groom’s family had completed a land transfer deal with Tuli’s father for a considerable chunk of property in Uttora. They also agreed to hand over the keys of a fashionable new home in Sylhet once the wedding is over. Quite a handsome deal in lieu of a not-too-good-looking 16-yr old girl, wouldn’t you say?
So they decided to keep the news from her till the very end. All they told her was that they were going to go for a family vacation to Sylhet once her exams are over. For as long as two months, maybe more. Tuli loves going ‘home’ for a visit. Especially to be with her mother’s folks. Her maternal grandfather and her aunts and uncles simply dote over her. That is about the only place on earth where she can really be herself, let her emotions fly free, and enjoy all the freedoms she craves for. The rules there are not half as stringent as they are in her home in New York. At her grandpa’s house she is allowed to climb a berry-tree to pick as many berries as she wants, can horse around with her cousins, male or female, play ludu or carom till midnight if she pleases. The grandpa is a pretty religious man, but doesn’t like imposing his faith on others. He dislikes the coercions and excesses. He goes to the mosques to listen to the sermons, but will not invite the Mullahs home to do any preaching. Pretty modern and surprisingly tolerant for an elderly man in a conservative society. Tuli used to swim in a family pond even a couple of years ago. Played with the cousins in the water. Her mamabari was the only place where she could be a child again. That’s why she got excited when she heard about going home after the exams.
This time, though, it was going to be different. Her father had already decided that her visits to his in-laws’ place isn’t going to be allowed anymore. It’s not just that she is going to be married away soon, but he never really liked the ways of their lax living. It wasn’t the right environment for children to grow up, he thought. Too liberal for his liking. Tuli isn’t a little girl anymore. Going to be seventeen in a couple of months. More importantly, going to married soon. God willing, her wedding is set for July 10. That is firm----everybody knows that. Except Tuli, of course. If the word goes out that the bride still goes for a dip in outdoor waters then all hell will break loose. The wedding is going to be cancelled, and along with it will go the land deal at Uttora and the new home in Sylhet. If she wants to go after her marriage with her husband’s permission, well, that’s not going to be his business anymore, will it? However, this decision of his has also been kept from Tuli for the time being, and for her own good. So the poor girl kept fantasizing about all the things she would do at her grandpa’s house this time.
Tuli is a dreamer. A habitual dreamer. She loves to let her imagination fly like a kite in the sky. All kinds of crazy ideas she keeps weaving in her mind. She dreams of riding a bicycle to the Central Park with her friends for a Michael Jackson concert. She dreams to go for a sleep-over at the house of her Colombian friend in school. The two of them have become best friends over the years. The friend had asked her so many times. We shall spend the whole night talking and talking. Next day we’ll sleep till 12 noon. Then my mother will come to wake us up with a tray full of homemade Colombian pancakes and freshly brewed coffee. We’ll have a lot of fun. No doubt about it---a lot of fun. How could she tell her friend what an impossible dream it was. She dreams she would go to a Sunday afternoon movie with the Panamanian boy in her class. Poor boy had pleaded with her so many times. Yes, she would love to go to a movie now and then, eat popcorn with hot butter on, like all the other boys and girls in this country. But Tuli doesn’t belong in this country, she only lives here. How could she explain that to Rozario? She likes the chap very much. They are not just in the same class, but also in the same Chemistry lab. Their desks are side by side. They help each other doing their lab work. If Tuli drops a test tube accidentally on the floor he will rush to pick up the pieces and clean the floor for her. He will give her a flower and a birthday card on her birthdays. The boys in the class will whistle at them, the girls will wink meaningfully. Tuli blushes furiously. Gets angry at Rozario. There was no need to bring the flower in clear view of everybody in the class. It’s only a birthday, right? You didn’t have to be so brazenly open, did you? She gets pretty rough on the poor kid. Yet, she takes the flower in her hand and puts away in her locker----as if it was the most precious thing anyone ever gave her. She knows she can’t possibly take it home-----she wouldn’t dare, unless she cooked up a phony tale. The home she lives in is not where she can take a flower given by a loving boy on her birthday. So she lies in her bed closing her eyes dreaming away the wistful night. Dreams her crazy dreams. With Rozario in her thoughts.
Tuli’s dream is to be a doctor. Or a top researcher in animal studies----perhaps Microbiology. She is the top student in her Biology class. She scored almost full marks in her term tests. And 96% in Chemistry. Her Biology teacher thinks she should aim at going to Harvard or Princeton for her college education. You should go to a big school if you want to have a big career. The teacher has full confidence in Tuli’s ability to do well enough to earn a scholarship in one of the top schools in the US. Tuli herself would like to pursue a research career in some area of Biology. Genetic Biology is one area that she finds most attractive. She keeps up with modern literature on genetics as much as she can. Her dream is to work under a Nobel Prize winning Biologist. Her Biology teacher has told her that with hard work she can achieve anything she wants. What is just a dream today will become a reality tomorrow.
What the Biology teacher wouldn’t know, however, is that there is another reality, a very stark reality, in the home of an orthodox Bangladeshi family, be it in Bangladesh or in the US. She wouldn’t know that there are things in life that are much more difficult to surmount than win a Nobel Prize for her 16-yr old top student. She wouldn’t know that the poor girl would be married away on July 10 to the son of the older brother-in-law of the youngest sister-in-law of Tuli’s aunt who lives in Bradford. She would have no way of knowing that the news of the imminent marriage is yet to be broken to the bride-to-be girl who she thought could win big scholarships at big schools in the country. Nobody thought it was necessary. Tuli’s opinions? Or consent? That would be quite irrelevant. Girls’ consent is not an essential thing in where Tuli’s family comes from. Before the wedding her father’s consent is her consent. After the wedding it will be her husband’s consent that will be deemed as her consent. If, God forbid, her husband dies before she does, then her son’s consent will be hers, too.
So let the girl dream away as much as she wants. That’s all she has as her own. That’s all she owns. And that young man on the other side of the globe, that boy has a dream too. His dream, however, is going to come true. How can a man’s dream come true until a girl’s dream gets shattered?
Staten Island, NY, 10314
(Translated by the author from his Bengali article : “Tuli’s Shapna”, written Jan 10, 2001and published in various Bengali magazines.)