Tuesday, 13 November 2007

The Little Garden in the Corner

Mizan Rahman

I do not celebrate my mother’s anniversaries. I never knew when she was born, neither did she. In those days nobody knew their birthdays, especially in rural areas. They grew like shrubs in the bushes, unnoticed and uncared for much of their lives. I do know the date of her death, but never got around to doing anything about it. Always found an excuse not to. If my brothers and sisters all lived close by, maybe we would get together on that day, take some flowers to her grave, tell a few stories to each other, eat some delicacies, and go back to our lives.
 Occasionally, though, I do think of my mother. Especially on the day she died. It’s a personal ritual I haven’t shared with anyone. But only for a few brief moments. Brief but intense. Quietly. Just as quiet as my mother’s life was. She came into the world in a whisper, left in another. In between there were scattered debris of untold pain and miseries. She lived in silence, died in silence. Silence pervaded her sphere of existence.
  An ordinary village girl, that’s what my mother was. Primary to middle school, that was the extent of her formal education. She had no decent clothes to wear to school, and no footwear. When she was in the middle school she did have a sari to wrap around her slender body, but no shoes. Then came the inevitable---the marriage. How old was she? Couldn’t be much more than 12 or 13. My father would do a small clerical job in town. First two years of their marriage she lived alone in the village. My father would take an evening train every Saturday to join her, then leave the next evening. That was probably the only two years of her life she knew what happiness meant. Happiness of weekly waiting. Happiness of listening to the approaching train on Saturdays. The train that would bring her man, the only man she ever knew in her life. Waiting for that evening train was the only joy she shared with all other women of the world.
  Then life began. My father rented a small house in an old, cheaper part of the town, and brought my mother along. My mother’s happy moments of waiting for the Saturday train to the village station evaporated. Instead, the babies started coming. No sooner than one was weaned out of the breasts came the other. Ever since I was old enough to remember things I’d see her in constant motion. A perpetual moving machine, that’s what she was. Her day would start with namaz at dawn, breakfast for father, then the children, polishing father’s shoes, keeping his office outfit handy, then get us ready for school. In the meantime my father would be back with his daily shopping, which would spring her into a sort of fast forward action. She couldn’t afford to be slow. She was like four hands in two. There was no room, absolutely no room, for a minute of slack, not even for sneezing or coughing. There was no question of her “ not feeling well” or “ not feeling up to it”. These luxuries were forever forbidden for my mother ever since she set foot in her new life in Dhaka. Much more important than her “feeling” was my father’s 9-5 job at the magistrate’s court. He just had to eat on time, because he just had to report for work on time. Once or twice my mother was not able to serve food on time, or the food was not cooked well. These are the times that were etched in stone in our collective memory. We’d better not talk about them. These are called family secrets.
  We didn’t have any domestic servants, for the simple reason that my father couldn’t afford one. Besides, in those days, it was not common to employ any domestic hand while the wife was around, especially in lower middle class families like ours. So my mother was the domestic hand, cook, nurse, launderer, mother and bedmate, all at the same time. Even the children’s first acquaintance with the alphabets and numbers used to be her responsibility. It was she who read to us the book of rhymes, coached us the arithmetic tables, helped us with our spelling and handwriting drills, all with her limited stock of primary and middle school background. She was also the one who told our bedtime stories, met our appetite for fairy tales, tales of kings and queens, tales of ghosts and wicked witches. If somebody would get sick with a flu or something it would invariably be my mother who would mix the syrup with the pills, get the barley, boil the water, put the cold wrap on the head, and stay awake by the bedside all night, if necessary. Did I ever see her bedridden with any illness?  Can’t remember. She didn’t have the time to get sick, she couldn’t afford to. Even if she felt out of sorts at times, she never let anyone know about it, nor did anyone ever bother to ask her how she was feeling. She was like a shadow in the house. A body without occupying any space. She was everywhere without being anywhere. Perhaps that’s why nobody ever noticed her, because she was in everybody’s life. Most indifferent was probably my father. Or maybe he did notice, but in his own silent way that we didn’t understand. Now my father is not around, nor is my mother. Now, at last, I do notice a few things.
 And just because I have learned to notice things a little more, I think I have begun to understand a little better as well. There was one thing about my mother that always puzzled me, but only lately its real meaning suddenly dawned on me. After a full day of hard work my mother would have about an hour’s time for herself, which I thought would be best used by taking a short nap or just doing nothing. But she had other things on her mind, her very own things. There was a tiny patch of land in the far corner of the house where she planted a few of her favourite flowers. Couple of gardenias, few jasmines. During the flowering season the aroma from the gardenias would fill the air, drawing the admiring wives from the adjoining huts of the slum-like area. There was one rather large gardenia that was particularly bountiful in its yield of flowers as well as their size. In my mind I can still see it. That was 55 years ago. The jasmines were just as gorgeous and aromatic. My younger sisters would make small garlands out of the jasmines. Sometimes, playfully, they would put one of those garlands around my mother’s neck. Suddenly she would start radiating like the sun in the late autumn afternoon, transforming her into a goddess. She would blush like a newlywed bride. For a few fleeting moments my mother would turn into a beautiful woman with eyes looking into a distant space, and the hair touching the knees like a river emptying into the sea. But alas, that wouldn’t last more than a minute. She wasn’t used to being a beautiful woman. She was used to being a wife and a mother, a glorified maid. Feeling embarrassed with that garland on her neck she would take it off, place it on the table, or stick it on the bun of one of her daughters. She didn’t want the flowers on her body, only on her plants. Nothing more than a hobby, I thought. Perhaps an eccentric hobby for a mother and a wife who never wanted anything for herself. But it was more than a fanciful hobby, which I learned much later in my life. It had a deeper significance.
  There was a large market place near our ancestral home in the village. It was called the Monipura Market. Every Monday it would come to life with shoppers and traders converging there from all around. Whenever I’d go for a visit to our village I’d accompany my uncles to the market, even though I had no business being there other than just hanging around. I’d love to see the fair-like festive atmosphere of the once-a-week rural market.  While my uncles were busy selling their farm products, I’d walk around  the open shops, between the shops, threading my way through the crowd, having a lot of fun. Once I strayed into an adjoining fishing village, just out of curiosity. I wanted to see first hand how the fishermen and their families lived. I had heard about their filthy and stinky homes, their yards full of fish scales and guts. There was more than a grain of truth in it, I found out. Even a blind person would know that he was in a fishing village just by the smell of it. There was an overpowering stench in the place. I proceeded very carefully, holding my nose to protect myself from the strong odour. There were unmistakable signs of abject poverty everywhere. The naked children with bloated tummies, the bony stray dogs eating off the human excrements, huts with no walls, old men coughing and spitting into the hanging nets meant for fishing trips. A handful of homes had corrugated tin on the roof, their earthen walls coated with cow manure. Suddenly my eyes found a girl trying to cook something on an earthen stove in an open kitchen with nothing more than a flimsy covering that could be blown away by a puff of wind from the first monsoon strike if the season. The poor girl had no blouse or bodice on her body. In a vain attempt to protect her modesty she tried to wrap the sari’s end around her chest. Her two babies were hanging on her two breasts on both sides, that couldn’t possibly have much milk left. That was a pathetic thing to see, but not uncommon in the poor households of rural Bengal. I was used to it. What I was not used to, and that’s what kept my mouth open, is the sight of a basil plant and a marigold bush in a small corner of the yard where the fresh excrement of one of her little children was in clear view. It was almost a full garden, complete with colourful hedge-plants, and other tropical shrubs. It was all within a very tiny space, no more than a few square yards, if at all. But that little square yard was her very own yard, where she was the sole monarch, where there was no fish waste, no midwives to deliver babies, no hubbies or in-laws to heap scorns and torments every day. This was the tiny parcel of land she got from her Creator where the ground responded to her touch and spawned new life. There, this little girl, who lost her childhood when she was still a child, lost her youth long before she was young, became a creator on her own. My mother had her gardenias and jasmines. This fisherwoman had her basils and marigolds.
 I never imagined I would see something similar in Canada, the land of plenty, the land where money is supposed to grow on trees. I thought those little gardens are sole properties of poverty. But once again, I was wrong. I realized after having lived here many years that it has nothing to do with poverty. It has to do with a fundamental truth about the life of a woman.
  The other day I heard the story of a girl that made me sad. She is a Bengali girl. Came to Canada four years ago. She knew that her husband was a big officer in a Canadian company. That was before she arrived here. When she did arrive, she discovered that her husband did indeed work in a company, but as a janitor. At least it was a job, which many other husbands did not have. Unfortunately this husband couldn’t hang on to that job either. Now he is on the dole, drawing a government cheque every month, which he promptly cashes to feed his habit of smoking cigarettes, gambling, his endless chattering sessions with equally worthless friends, renting cheap Hindi movies to watch all night. I won’t tell her real name. Let’s say it is Shilpi. The word shilpi in Bengali means artist, which in fact would fit this girl quite well. She had a talent for arts. Draws beautiful landscapes and portraits. She even enrolled in an Art College at home. Had a dream for an artistic career some day. Then came this marriage proposal. Her parents and aunts and uncles all joined in a chorus: great proposal, big officer in a Canadian company, an opportunity of a lifetime. It would be foolish to throw it away. Shilpi had no defense, of course. Girls from middle class families in Bangladesh never do. She had to give in. A land of opportunities, they said. Get married, go to Canada, then fly to the skies. Who is there to stop you fulfilling all your dreams? Who indeed!
  Life is not too artistic for Shilpi right now. Has to wake up before 6 every day. Then she has to make parotas and omlettes for the husband. He just has to have it every morning---apparently a childhood habit. Otherwise he loses his temper. Once the husband is fed to his satisfaction, she finds some scrap in the kitchen for her to gobble up before rushing off to work  She has to catch the 7 o’clock train. Takes a full hour to get to her place of work, which starts at 8:00 sharp. 8 to 4, nonstop. Only a half- hour break for lunch. The work is hard and tedious, nothing to write about to friends at home. After all, a butcher’s work doesn’t need the hands of a Picasso, does it? It’s only a faint memory when the same hands would make great impressions of the raging flowers of the krishnochura trees in Dhaka, or the village girl playing in the yellow mustard fields of rural Bengal in a decent imitation of van Gogh. These hands are now employed to clean up the guts and bowels of ducks and fowls every day for 8 hours. At the beginning she would feel pretty depressed about it. Used to cry a lot, alone. Not any more. Doesn’t even think about it. Doesn’t have the time. These are the small luxuries she cannot afford anymore. By the time she is back home in the evening it’s time to do the cooking. Hubby isn’t home yet, but will be in a couple hours. He is still busy with his friends. Playing cards, talking Bangladeshi politics, local elections, community gossips, rumours, scandals and breakups, whispers and innuendoes. Any vile and despicable thing you can name, it is there. Sometimes they do engage in serious business, like black market, forged passports, human traffic, insurance fraud, money laundering. Around 9 he gets hungry and heads home. Shilpi serves his dinner, complete with typical Bangladeshi varieties with generous servings of homemade deserts and other delicacies. After the heavy meal his highness will chew his betel leaf, sit on the sofa to watch a program on the satellite TV. Then, ominously, unfailingly, he will have the wife sit beside him, cuddle up to her like a hungry cat. This is the time of her daily routine that Shilpi dreads most. She doesn’t resist. Because the more she resists the more ferocious he gets, bringing on the animal in its most primeval form. She lets the feast of the beast take its ride for a while. Tries to think of something entirely different while the assault continues. Once the job is done the man zips up his pants and darts off for yet another session with the friends. Shilpi sinks in her bed like a wrecked ship resting on the soft sand of the coast. Sleep comes quickly on her battered body and wipes off the pain for one more night. Until the clock chimes at 6 again.
  And yet, somehow, in some inexplicable way, the girl found a bit of time to build a little garden in the balcony. Nothing to write home about, really. Cheap apt., cheaper balcony, even more cheap is the occupant—the perennially poor immigrant. In most families the balconies are used as junkyards, a place to pile up broken furniture, discarded linen, old bicycles. But Shilpi’s balcony is different. She bought four large flower pots. In one she put a zinnia, in another a jasmine, the third one a hibiscus, the fourth a kamini. The tallest one is the kamini, yet it is the one that hasn’t flowered so far. The others burst into thick blossoms every year when the season comes. Sometimes she will pluck a flower absent-mindedly, hum an old tune in her mind, then plant the flower in her bun, go to the mirror to have a look at herself. Then something comes upon her. She feels like bursting into loud sobs. She keeps herself in check, though, removes the flower from the wretched bun, and soaks in water in a vase. She had done some artwork on the walls of the pots. At times, whenever she has the mood, she will add a line or two around those paintings. Every one of those lines has a meaning that is known to no one but Shilpi. Those lines are tied to her own private life. The brute husband of hers has no idea what these pots mean to her. He makes crude comments. Makes vulgar insinuations. She must have had a Hindu lover at the art school. Why else would she be fascinated by Hinduish artwork on the pots? He would tease her by throwing cigarette ash on the flower beds. She would get angry at first, very angry. The more angry she would get the more ash he would drop. She has since learned to control her outbursts. She still gets mad, but doesn’t show it. She has learned that girls are not supposed to be angry at their husbands. A woman’s anger is called bad temper. A man’s anger is called manliness, personality. Shilpi didn’t know these hard facts of life before marriage. Now she knows.
  News broke out one day that Shilpi was in hospital. Apparently an occupational hazard, an accident. The blade fell on her wrist instead of the chicken head. A close friend whispered in my ear a different story. The real story, he swore to me. It was no accident, he said, in a low conspiratorial tone. It was a self-inflicted injury, he vowed. There was a fight between the two. The husband threw her flower pots in a fit of rage. Look how weird these women are. To take your life for a lousy pot of flowers?  Strange, eh?
  Strange, indeed, isn’t it? We men will never understand how important a pot of flowers is in a woman’s life. A lousy garden in the corner is often the only the only way they can breathe a little, their only opening to the gateway of life. If the poor girl really slit her hand it was not because of a pot of earth alone. What it was for I cannot say. If my mother were alive today maybe she could tell. Or that hapless little girl-mother in the fishing village of Monipura.

Ottawa, Sept.1998
 (Translated by the author for the benefit of his grandchildren on Nov. 13, 2007)

Mizan Rahman, মীজান রহমান

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