I didn’t think much of the girl when I met her first. Quite an unremarkable inner-city girl with signs of abject poverty and deprivation all over her face. I never thought she would leave a lasting impression on me. But, amazingly, she did.
Her name was Bibi---a name as ordinary as herself, dull and bare like a discarded wooden doll. What a silly name for a little girl--- a word that means someone’s wife! Nothing before or after---just plain Bibi. Not a Zainab Bibi, a Kulsum Bibi, or an Ayesha Bibi. A simple unadorned, lonely, Bibi. It’s a name no-one had ever written a poem on, no one had ever sung a song about A girl with a name like that doesn’t usually hum a tune as she walks the alleys or goes to school with her braided hair swinging in air, or as she skips along with her class mates. She just exists, barely exists, against all odds. Girls of her kind usually do not survive beyond their infancy, and those who do somehow make an existence as the worms do in the dumpyards. Bibi comes of a Kutti family, native slumdogs of urban Dhaka.
I’m talking about a time that is long past. Another era, another world.The British India was still very much British.The war had just ended.Soon the subcontinent would intensify her independence movements, quickly followed by communal riots, particularly in the eastern parts of the country. The leaders of both Congress and the Muslim League were screaming aloud---some uttering ‘Joy Hind’ (victory to India), some ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ (long live Pakistan). At stake was the fate of the minority Muslims of India most of whom were rooting for Pakistan, a separate state for the Muslims, while the majority Hindus were clamouring for Mother India to remain undivided. The emotions were running high, the local goondas brandishing their swords and knives were patrolling their respective areas. Both sides were shouting their war-cries: the Hindus with their menacing ‘Bande Matram’ (salute to the motherland), and the Muslims with equally menacing cry of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Allah is the greatest).
By a stroke of luck my parents had rented a house in a ‘safe’ Muslim area of the town---Kaltabazar was a densely populated slum-like place in the south side of Dhaka, where a Hindu would be ill-advised toseek residence, even to try a casual visit. In fact the whole town was neatly carved up into so-called Hindu areas and Muslim areas. The middle-class Hindus, generally more well-educated and affluent, and the lowly Muslims with no worldly goods to show for, could never be considered as good neighbors. In fact they were as hostile as they could be since the time I can remember. The slightest provocation from either side would quickly escalate into a full-scale riot.The school I went to was in a somewhat neutral zone, straddling between a Muslim and a Hindu-populated area. During the riots I guess it was always worrisome for my parents to send me to school. Every day, I remember, my mother would sternly warn me against getting too close to rough-looking thugs, be they from one side or the other. After all, a boy in shorts can easily be mistaken as one of the other side by both sides. As it is, my parents weren’t too eager to let us mingle with the kutti boys for fear ofbeing influenced by their supposedly rough and tough ways and the foul, vulgar language they spoke. Out of the schoolgrounds we, my brothers and I, hardly ever socialized with any kutti boy, which explains why after having lived in that area for more than 16 years I can’t think of a single friend from the indigenous community of that place, nor could I ever speak a word of their local dialect. I only remember how wistfully I’d look out my window watching the kutti boys playing with marbles on the laneways, or rolling their spinning tops. I’d feel particularly miserable during the kite-flying season, when almost every kutti boy would be out with his colorful kites and reels of strings laced with crushed glass, and I was strictly forbidden to step outside even to watch. I was supposed to be doing my homework while they were having all the fun of the world. The logic was perfectly reasonable, of course. I was going to be ‘somebody’ in life by doing the homework, while they were going to be big ‘nobodies’ by flying the kites. It just didn’t seem fair to me at that time.
Bibi and her folks were just one of those close-yet-far away neighbours of ours. We only knew each others’ faces, nothing more. Her father was an ordinary construction worker, moving bricks and cement on the construction sites. All day long he would punish his body just to make a half-decent living for his family comprising of two wives and an army of small children. In the evening he would have a plain rice-and-curry meal, then run off to the town with his buddies to have some fun, which normally meant some cheap local brew and an occasional trip to the nearby brothel. In fact, this is how he got his second wife: from the brothel. It would be quite late in the night when he would come home, often too drunk to walk straight. His speech would be slurred and full of unprintable vulgarkutti slangs. Sometimes the verbal abuse would be followed by severe beatings of not just the children but their mothers as well.
The swearing and beating in that house must have crossed the line a bit on one of those nights. The commotion was loud enough to wake up the entire neighborhood. This would probably not suffice to jolt me or my siblings out of our deep sleep except for one thing: a loud and incessant sound of banging on our front door. My father had to be very irked by the late-night interference with the normal process of restful sleep after a hard day’s work. So he went to see who that unwelcome intruder might be. But as soon as he unbolted the door-latch, in came a very frightened little girl, her half-clad tiny body was shaking terribly, part in fright and part in cold. It was, after all, the middle of winter. It was clear that her father might have had a bit too much booze that night and/or her mother might have uttered a wrong word or two in the haze of her sleep, which could have hit the trigger causing the explosion. He was like a vicious animal that was going to swallow everything in its way. In her cold fright Bibi’s mother might have thought it prudent to send the child off to the next door neighbor’s house where she would be much safer and probably well taken care of. On that, she was quite right, of course. My brothers and sisters were too young to understand what really was going on, so we quickly went back to sleep, until in the morning we woke up to find the little girl next door all wrapped up in a small bundle of warm comforter in the far end of our bed----deep in sleep.
Bibi was probably just about 2 years younger than me---practically since my toddler days I have known her as the kutti girl next door, whom I should try to avoid if I can. So the first time I really noticed her was on that morning when I found her lying peacefully in my own bed like a wounded little bird. She was quite a sweet little girl, after all, I thought.
We all knew or heard about how rough and unrefined the kuttis were, about their foul-mouthed unsophisticated manners, about their indifference to education and betterment of life. But no one really tried to find out anything beyond what appeared to be obvious, that underneath the rough surface there perhaps were some soft elements that were just as humane as ours’, if not more. In fact, we all found out later that these rough-and-tough people with very little earthly means, whom we grew up to spurn at every possible opportunity, were nonetheless capable of unbelievable kindness and generosity to anyone in distress or in need of help, financial or otherwise. Their hospitality may not have been as legendary as that of the Bengali country folks, but they surely were not too far behind.It’s true that they wouldn’t cosy up to you without a good reason, nor were they too anxious to start a conversation with a stranger, especially someone from the ‘outside’, like the ‘village boys’ of my kind, whom they would call, derisively, ‘the Bangals’. They seemed to have an air of superiority over these poor ‘Bangals’, whose rustic accents they would make fun of, whom they would find easy targets of bullying, and whom they would generally find objects of disdainful pity at the best, and outright contempt at worst. However, once a kutti foundsomeone to his liking, someone worth his friendship, he would go all out to make the relationship solidified by getting the two families involved in a formal bonding ceremony ensuring the friendship last the rest of his life. The friends would call each other: dost.
My parents didn’t think much of that one night’s shelter for Bibi in our house----it was automatic, it was the only humane thing one could do in that circumstances. Quite insignificant, whichever way you look at it. But, for the family of Bibi it was far from ‘insignificant’. It was huge, it was an event that had to be remembered for the rest of their lives. The next day Bibi’s mother came to kneel down at my mother’s feet in a gesture of grateful appreciation. After some small talk she left by declaring that she and her family would remain ever so indebted to us, and ready at our service any time we needed any help. Needless to say we were all overwhelmed by what we thought her excessive show of gratefulness, which to us was nothing more than a small act of natural kindness that anyone would do, not only to a small child, but to anyone, including small animals. The whole incident created a bit of dilemma for my parents who, notwithstanding the avowed resolve not to let us get close to the kutti children found it hard to raise a barrier on Bibi and her family. They had to, just had to, make an exception, right?
After the small incident of that cold angry night Bibi turned into a pet to my mother----she would just drop in our house whenever she felt like. She felt so free with my mother, so eager to give her a helping hand in the kitchen---scaling the fish, slicing the vegetables, combing out the tiny gravels from rice, fetching the water from the municipality taps in the laneway, whatever, that my mother would start feeling a bit embarrassed. The best help she could give, of course, was taking care of 6-month old baby brother of mine when my mother was occupied with too many other chores. During the day she would hold the baby in her laps, feed him from the bottle, or cradle him on her legs, rock him to sleep---somehow she had learned all this in those few years of her young life. Thanks to her help my mother was now able to take a bit of much-needed nap in the afternoons from time to time. Our family wasn’t rich enough to employ a cook or helping hand (a servant being the more commonly used but somewhat in a derogatory sense), so the burden was all on my mother to take care of everything in the house, from feeding and bathing and cleaning the childen to cooking and washing and sweeping the floors and making the beds to getting things ready for my father when he comes home from work. Finally, of course, having a baby every second year, if not every year. In our family she was the one up the first in the morning and in to bed the last. Every day of the year, every year. The first little break in her endless cycle of monotonous life was given by this little kutti girl, just because she was allowed to get in our house on a cold wintry night and sleep in a comfortable bed. Slowly, and before we even noticed it, she became practically a part of our family. If my father would buy anything for us we would have to share it with her. Any new clothes for us would mean new clothes for her too. Especially on the two Eids. My mother never failed to share any special food, Eid or not, with Bibi’s family, including the meat from the Korbani.
We never knew the names of Bibi’s parents. People would call him ‘Sobhan’s dad’, from which we guessed that Sobhan was the name of Bibi’s older brother---a rather strong-built young man, except that he was lame in one leg. Started working on the consruction site very early in life as his father did. Then the accident happened. His job was pretty simple---just even up freshly applied cement on the bricks of the building. A dull, boring job that was sometimes enlivened a bit by a crooner with a primitive violin in hand. The day the accident happened---Sobhan slipped in the wet cement, lost his balance, and fell two floors down on the hard pavement. He broke his right leg which could not be looked at by a proper medical doctor, simply because his father just couldn’t afford it. So he did his best by taking him first to a homeopathic, then an Ayurvedic practitioner. Nothing worked, of course, which meant that the boy remained handicapped for the rest of his life. It was a serious blow to the struggling family, because the oldest son for them meant economic security in the parents’ old age. If his income-generating capacity is diminished so is the prospect of survival for the entire family. His father was not a bad man, notwithstanding his occasional drunken rage and irrational behavior. When Sobhan reached his adolescent age he set him up with a small business in a corner store selling deep-fried dalpuris, a delicious concoction made of rolled white flour and spiced lentils. After the Bibi incident he often used to send a small packet of those delectable dalpuris for me and my other siblings. We would just love them. But for me the more memorable stuff was an absolutely heavenly dish that her mother used to make, then hawk around the neighborhood, called ghumli, ( something made out of steam-cooked whole peas mixed with mustard oil, sautéed onion, salt and fried whole red chillies), the very thought of which was enough to water my mouth in those days. Bibi’s mother would stay awake long hours into the night to prepare that stuff, then go out in the morning from one neighborhood to another hoping to sell the lot of it in her effort to supplement the meager family income. Life was never easy for her or anyone in that family. My mother knew how crazy I was for that stuff, so she would dish out a nickel or two, sometimes, to buy a cornet of ghumli for me. Naturally I’d like to have it every day, which of course was out of question. Our family was almost as strapped for money as Bibi’s. I guess her mother knew that, so she would come by on her own sometimes with some ghumli in a paper cup, just for me.
Bibi and her siblings never went to school. Education was not one of the priorities in the kutti way of life. Some of the more affluent ones did send their boys to the local Govt. Muslim High School, but most of them dropped out by the time they reached grade 7 or 8. It’s not they were inferior to others in their intrinsic abilities, except that they were not used to the idea of making a career out of education. As soon as the boys would reach puberty they would put their books on the shelf and run off to join their family business. A lot of kutti boys were involved in the business of horse-driven coaches, in one way or other. To own a pair of rickety horses and a buggy would seem to at the top of their life’s ambition. Many were emplyed in the construction business, mostly as day-laborers. Some owned small businesses like a corner store, a small grocery, a restaurant, etc..Rarely one would see a kutti doctor, a lawer, engineer or a teacher. Even if you could find an educated kutti from among a thousand or so, it would invariably be a male. It was almost unheard of for a kutti girl going to school beyond the primary level, let alone the college. My mother would try to talk Bibi’s mother into sending the little girl to the neighborhood school, but she wouldn’t listen. No one in her family had ever sent a girl to school, so why should Bibi be an exception, was her counter argument. An irrefutable one, it would seem. So my mother, on her own, would get down with the poor girl with one of the worn out books that we had grown out of, trying to teach her the alphabets and, perhaps, some basic rules of arithmetic. It’s not that my mother had a college degree or something. In fact all she had was a grade six education in a village school, that came to an abrupt end following the inevitable that happens to most village girls: marriage. That didn’t stop her, however, from filling in as a stern teacher that she was for me and my other eight siblings, until we were ready to enrol in grade three at the high school. In other words my mother was our primary teacher, unpaid of course. I never understood how she managed to do that in all the thousand things she had to do in the house, including polishing my father’s shoes and washing and pressing his shirts. For me as a child it was the most wondrous sight in the world to look at my poor mother spending most of the day near the wood-burning earthen stove, feed everybody in the house before putting something in her own mouth assuming there were something left for her, then sit down with the kids and their books and pencils, for an hour or two. Did she ever know what it means to be exhausted, or even mildly tired? Bengali mothers presumably never do. What was even more amazing was how serious she was in giving the kutti girl the same attention she did to her own children. She didn’t want the little girl feel that in any way she was different from her own kids.
One could never tell if Bibi would go anywhere in her pursuit of an education, if she had an opportunity to go beyond my mother’s home-schooling, but one could see how eager she was to learn to read and even to write a bit. She was a fast learner as my mother would say---had a natural ability to grasp things easily, and a sharp memory. Pretty soon she was able to read a book, and count up to 100. Even learned the basic arithmetic operations----addition, subtraction, mutiplication and division. We were truly amazed to see how quickly and quietly she was able to learn those things. Truly phenomenal was her memory----she could remember everything once she saw or heard it. She could even remember the dates of events in the history books that I might be reading aloud in her earshot. She made me feel a bit jealous at times, I must confess. If only I had her memory, I’d say to myself. At one time I must have surrendered to her superior ability to remember things, so at exam times I started testing my memory by reciting to her whatever I had learned. Yet, the cruel fact is that the poor girl never had an opportunity to set foot in a proper classroom.
In the beginning my parents were a bit apprehensive about us getting too close to Bibi for fear of being ‘contaminated’ by the foul words and unspeakable slangs that she would inevitably utter from time to time. It wasn’t Bibi alone. The whole family became more than just the next-door neighbor in a pretty short length of time. Even her father started treating us with a lot more respect than before. He would come around sometimes inquiring if there was anything that he could do for us-----and to be sure, there were always something that needed to be looked at, like repairing a broken chair, making a bookshelf, a lime-wash on the walls, or just removing a dead mouse from the well that we all had to use for our daily bath. He was very helpful.
Bibi wasn’t, by nature, a very cheerful, gregarious girl. Rather reserved, content to be left alone in her own little corner in the house, apparently unconcerned by whatever was happening around her. However, she seemed to have opened up with my mother, allowing herself to behave like a child again, smiling, giggling, eager to join the games my sisters were playing. If we were influenced, ever so slightly, by her kutti accents, I guess she was no less influenced by the somewhat urbanized Narshingdi accent we all used in our family. At times we all laughed heartily at each other, mocking and making fun of each other’s manner of speaking. I know her mother wasn’t too happy catching her daughter, at times, bursting out laughing, that was quite uncharacteristic of her usual demeanor. It wasn’t because she didn’t enjoy a good laugh from time to time, but she just didn’t think laughing too much was a good thing for a young girl. Neighbors would think she was a shameless girl, which would mean prospective matches for marriage might be scared away.
Bibi was far more friendly and comfortable with my sisters than she was with me. Most of the day the three of them would be huddling together, doing some mischief, or conspiring to, or just playing their girly little games. Sometimes, especially on rainy days, they would sit near the door, and talk and talk and talk ceaselessly. My sisters were quite good at telling stories, particularly the ones they heard my mother or they read in their books at school, or at home. Bibi probably had her own stories to tell, but she never went to school, so her stock of fairy-tales, or of the handsome princes and princesses was rather limited. She was quite content listening to those amazing stories my sisters would tell her.
There was a long narrow canal, called Dholai Khal, cutting across the middle of the city of Dhaka, that ran over the trash dump behind our house. In winter it was just a thin strip of dirty water that one could jump across. But in summertime, especially after some heavy rains and flush floods, the canal would become a mighty river lapping the heavily populated shorelines on either side. Fortunately our house was on a relatively higher ground, but others weren’t that lucky. Some of those people would often find themselves living in their homes half-submerged in filthy water with human waste floating all over.
Depressing as it was, the flood nonetheless was cause for the neighborhood children to have a heyday in the water. Some of the older boys would sit down with their fishing gear trying to catch a fish that might have strayed away from the connecting river Buriganga. For the younger kids, however, the fun was the sight of a big “river” suddenly popping up in their backyard, giving them a golden opportunity to jump in and have a good swim whenever they liked. Tempted as I was, I didn’t dare join the other boys for fear of getting an earful from my parents. That didn’t prevent us, of course, from standing near the water, watch the fishing lines hook a live fish or two, or the boys jumping into the water and having a good time. Sometimes Bibi would join the boys to enjoy the thrill of diving in and out of water, even though she must have known how filthy that water was.
Then, one day, a terrible thing happened. It wasmidday, a steamy lazy day. For some reason schools were closed on that day. The adults of the neighborhood were busy at work. The construction workers were gone to their respective sites, the coachmen out with their horses and buggies. Light rain all morning had created enough mud puddles in the area for the kids to have great fun playingin. Some of the children, including me and my siblings, were just watching the waves of the Dholai khal, standing at a safe distance from the waterline. There was a small country boat anchored by a flimsy little rope tied to a loosely stuck stick in the soil. It was riding the waves in a gentle waltz-like motion, which was quite fascinating to watch. Few of the children decided it would be great fun boarding the boat and enjoy the wavy motion. As there was a bit more agitation in the boat because of the children moving around in it, one of them decided it might be even more fun if they were actually moving downstream, so he just cut the rope off. Suddenly the boat was in full motion. Slowly at first, then powered by a gentle breeze it started going faster, quickly getting to the more wavy part in the middle of the canal. There was panic on the faces of the children. They started screaming out of fear, desperately trying to turn back by hand-paddling. But how could they? They were just a bunch of 7-10 year old little kids who didn’t have the skill or the strength to steer the boat out of danger and back to the shore. Out of sheer fright they started jumping around the small boat which added further to its rocking motion. In the melee a 5-6 year old girl, the smallest and obviously the weakest of all, lost her balance and fell overboard. Down in the water, not knowing how to swim, she started swallowing water, and quickly began to drown. As we were watching with absolute horror all the drama in the water my first instinct was to jump in and try to rescue the poor girl. Except for a small problem----I didn’t know how to swim. Neither did any of my siblings. As we were contemplating that one of us should run to find an adult who could do something, we were surprised to see our friend Bibi jumping in. She swam like an expert swimmer to reach the place where the girl seemed to disappear,then dipped her head under the water and disappeared herself. After a few tense moments Bibi came up holding the frightened girl in her handand put her back in the boat, somehow managed to steer the boat to the shore with her one hand pushing its rear and treading the water with the other. We all looked at her in awe and admiration----couldn’t believe she would have the wit to do the right thing at the right time. We were so proud! It never occurred in my mind at that time how on earth did she ever learn to swim-----she would have to learn from somebody. But again, nobody needed to teach anything to anyone in a poor slum-like neighborhood----they somehow learn everything on their own in order to survive in a harsh environment.
While the life-and-death drama was being played out on the shoreline of Dholai canal the noise and screams must have alerted some of the adults who were working nearby. They came running to see what happened. When they heard the whole story they shook their head in disbelief how Bibi’s quick decision to jump in the raging river saved the little girl’s life. They heaped a lot of praise on her while admonishing the other children for their foolish act of taking a small girl on a boat and let it run wild in the middle of a swollen river. Had the same event occurred elsewhere in the world, Bibi’s name would probably be flashed across every newspaper in the country, perhaps even earn a medal or something for bravery. But alas, in a poor country like ours, the ordinary people hardly get any recognition for an extraordinary act of bravery.
Then there was the memory of yet another day that has remained etched in my mind for ever-----one that hasn’t faded in time. I was lazing around in the house after the final exams in grade 9. Normally I’d have headed ‘home’-----meaning my grandparents’ home in the village, to be doted and spoiled by my grandma and all the rest of my folks. But it was not a normal time----a fierce communal riot was going on at the time between the Hindus and Muslims. Widespread looting of businesses all over town, arson, indiscriminate killings, became the everyday staple of newspapers and radio. We, my brothers and I, would look around from the rooftop to have a better view of the smoke and flames billowing out of the homes and buildings in nearby areas like Nawabpur, Jorpul, Narinda and Maishandi. It was frightening to watch all the fire and smoke, yet in a perverse way, they looked so eerily beautiful in our young eyes.
Suddenly our ears were alerted to an unusual commotion somewhere in the neighborhood. Curious to see what was going on we got off the roof, and tried to get someone who could give us some news. But there was none who would bother to stop for a moment and answer a question-----they were all running around like a bunch of scared rats. Then, out of nowhere, we saw our little Bibi running home like a wounded animal.And, without a word, she just dropped on their doorstep completely unconscious. It took a few buckets of cold water on her head to bring her back to consciousness. But her eyes were so full of fright that she was unable to utter a single word for quite a while. It was as if she saw a ghost somewhere. Her body was shaking like in a state of seizure, her eyeballs about to pop out. For full seven days she was in bed with high fever, often in delirium. It appeared that she was trying to tell us something, but the words couldn’t simply break out. It was only from other children we were able to find out what really happened.
It was a clear, quiet afternoon. The muezzin had called out for the mid-afternoon asr prayerfrom the minaret of the mosque. The pious Muslims did their customary ablution in preparation for lining up behind the imam to say their prayer. The kids were busy with their own kid-stuff. Suddenly they all stopped with their eyes fixed on the faces of 4 or 5 neighborhood goondas known for their ability to kill someone without blinking an eye-----professionally adept, cold-blooded murderers. Accompanying the unsavory bunch of savages was a small child, 10-11 year old sweet little boy, presumably from a Hindu family. Apparently his mother had sent him out to look for his father who had been late going back home. Scouting around aimlessly for some time the poor boy found himself, unwittingly of course, in clear view of two Muslim goondas at the corner of Muslim Kaltabazar and Hindu Shankharibazar. The two enemy camps meet at the corner of a Christian church. He was so innocent and so anxious about his father that he didn’t think twice before giving out his name: Arup Das, and trusting them completely when they gave him the assurance that they would help him find his father.
By that time the two goondas were joined by another one, getting stronger in number. They took the boy by his hand and coaxed him along to their intended destination. By the time they arrived at the edge of the big dump of Kaltabazar, a fairly large crowd had gathered to see what they were up to. In the meantime someone started digging a big hole with a spade----soon a few more hands joined in. Neighborhood kids also came to have a look, keeping a safe distance from the rough-looking adults. By that time poor Arup Das must have got the wind of what was going to happen to him-----after all, he was old enough to know what communal riot meant. A cold chill ran through his body. He started crying. By the time the hole was done his screams were loud enough to pierce the seat of the God of the Muslims, presumably sitting high in the heavens. The screams must have also broken through the walls of the nearby mosque where the pious Muslims were saying their prayer. The Hindu boy’s heart-rending pleas for mercy wouldn’t be allowed to disturb the concentration of the prayers the good people were engaged in. So there was no mercy from anywhere. The high heavens remained seemingly unperturbed, the crowd of on-lookers remained unmoved.
They forced the boy down into the dark hole, and held him there with two long poles, one on his chest, the other on the crotch, while others started pouring fresh earth on him until the hole was all covered. The child’s frantic screams would be heard even through the first few layers of earth, but soon it was all quiet-----eerily quiet. Within minutes the job was all done. A body was buried-----alive. The good Muslims, by the time the act of pure savagery was completed, were filing out in a sombre frame of mind, hoping that their prayers had reached the ears of Almighty Allah, the Merciful, the Benevolent, the Supreme Creator of the Universe.
We guessed that Bibi might have witnessed the whole gory thing with her own eyes. So the shock and horror of it must have been a bit too much for this kind-hearted gentle little girl to bear.
After that horrible incident we stayed a few more years in that area. In the meantime Bibi had already been married. She was only 14, although it is true that for a kutti girl it was more or less the right age for marriage. I have seen some 8 or 9 year old brides, too. As a matter of fact Bibi was apparently getting out of the marriageable age at 14! Her parents had started getting worried about her-----would they ever find a suitable match for their not-too-pretty dark-complexioned girl? Thanks to Almighty God, finally there was a promising proposal. The family lived in the adjacent area of Rokonpur. Respectable family----the young man’s father was a contractor in the construction business, an uncle was an orderly in the local District Court, a brother-in-law made a lot of money selling aluminium pots and pans. And the young man himself wasn’t a good-for-nothing chap loafing around the neighborhood, he had solid education----up to grade 6, could have done better had it not been for his father advising him to start a business instead of going for higher education. Pretty well-off, one might say. It was just a stroke of luck and, of course, infinite mercy of Allah, that such an affluent and classy family would choose their daughter as a daughter-in-law. Of course our Bibi wasn’t a worthless piece of nothing-----she had many remarkable qualities that we and my mother came to find out through the few years she got close to our family. But those ‘remarkable qualities’ were of little use in the kutti society where a girl is judged not by her brains but by her body, her ability to produce babies and cook meals for the family. Our dear Bibi seemed to fit that description quite well as well.
To this day I never forgot the wedding of Bibi. It was more a wedding week than a wedding day. In the kutti tradition a wedding is an occasion for a long, elaborate festival. Doesn’t matter that, normally, they couldn’t afford to have a decent meal every day, but wedding is a different thing. It’s a matter of family ‘honor’. The entire neighborhood had to endure the blaring sound of cheap Hindi songs most of the nights, and part of the days too. Those sleepless nights are probably the reason I got a little tired of the music of the famous playback singers like Lata Mungeshkar and Asha Bhnoshley. Later on in my life I couldn’t stand their voice, and still can’t.
The festivities would become much more energized as the wedding got closer. Especially since the ceremonial gaye-holud day ( the so-called turmeric-rubbing day) , on which the bride’s entire body would be daubed with turmeric paste, then required to stay like that until the actual day of wedding 48 hours later. The idea behind the tradition, I suppose, is to get the bride prepared for the “heavenly” experience of meeting her husband for the first time, in the well-decorated bridal bedroom. While the turmeric-paste ritual of the ceremony must have been a dreaded ordeal for the poor girl, it was cause for celebration for everyone else. Especially the women. They would get almost delirious in merriment------singing and dancing and beating drums incessantly. Often the women from entire neighborhood would get in the act, as if it was not just a family wedding but a community event. Our own family wasn’t directly involved in any of this, but we hardly had a choice but suffer through the whole circus.
After the social and legal parts of the marriage were concluded, Bibi, the bashful bride, came over, for the last time I suppose, to pay respects to my mother and to say bye to us all. Poor girl started sobbing like a child as she wrapped her arms around my mother’s neck. Then, perhaps, it was the harder part, to say goodbye to each of us, her playmates of many happy years, each individually. She embraced every one of my little brothers and sisters in deep show of affection. Finally the moment arrived when it was my turn to say goodbye to. This time she didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, come forward to hold me in an embrace. She just stood there, for eternity it would seem, with her large, dark eyes, misty and mysterious, cast down, looking nowhere but the hard cement floor. She couldn’t even utter the two simple words: “Bye Mijoobhai”. All she could was just stand there with her downcast eyes saying everything there was to say, yet uttering not a single word. Our long companionship, our growing up together in unspoken friendship, our silly games, hearty laughs, our childhood fears and joys----all seemed to have melted down to a fathomless stare of that speechless little girl, bound for her new home from which there will be no return. I too seemed to have frozen there for a few moments, losing my ability to say the simple thing: “Bye Bibi”. So it was that we parted our ways with no words exchanged. The groom’s party was getting a bit impatient----started pressing her to rush a bit. The bridal carriage was waiting at the door, and it was getting late. They must go home before midnight.
That was the last time I saw Bibi. She did come to visit her parents a couple of times, didn’t forget to visit my mother on both occasions, but I was away both times, unfortunately.
Yes, Bibi was indeed like a member of our family----that’s how we all got used to thinking of her. She was very, very close to us all. But life had taken us apart----- we floated away from each other, each seeking to build a life in his own world. My siblings and I, too, moved away from the core of our family, our parents, pursuing our own dreams. The ones in what once used to be a close-knit family, had by then split apart away, far away to far-off lands----some in UK, some USA, and some more in Canada. Each chasing his/her own cherished rainbows. We all settled somewhere else, somewhere away from home, away from where we were born and grew up together, in good times and bad, from our childhood playgrounds, and our small conspiracies to evade the punishment of our stern father. Only occasionally do we meet, on our common vacations, when we go for short visits to our homeland. Our parents have long been dead, having completed their task of setting our lives in motion. They gave their lives to build ours. And here we are, each chasing our own goals, our own fancies and fantasies. Each trying to make sense of what we have supposedly accomplished, to find a meaning of life. Is life an invisible circle that brings the weary traveler back to where he started the journey?
I never thought I’d ever have any reason to think of that poor girl again-----our kutti playmate Bibi. Her memory was all but wiped out from my consciousness. But a few years ago, as we were reminiscing our childhood times when we went to have a look at our old neighborhood, suddenly Bibi popped up in my memory. Suddenly it felt like a deep-sea diver bringing back from the depth of an ocean a pair of large, dark eyes. My mind traveled across many a time-zone to find a 14-yr old kutti girl walking off to her fate. I decided that no matter what I must find out where she lives and see if I could meet her.
It was not hard to see that there was a lot of change in the old town, as there was in the new, since I left for a life abroad. The new town got newer by the day, and the old got older and older. The dark sunless alleys seemed even darker now, the walls more musty, the houses more tightly packed. All the open spaces in the neighborhood where I used to run around, play football, were filled up by tall buildings and shanty houses. Every little space was occupied by people, and more people. Looked like a colony of termites. Or an overcrowded ferry on the brink of drowning. Or could it be that I was only seeing things with the eyes of an outsider, having lived a comfortable life in a different land, far, far away?
After a lot of asking around I got a lead----news about a younger brother of Bibi. Apparently he owned a small pharmacy on the main street of the neighboring area of Rai Shaheb’s Bazar. He seems to have become some sort of an evangelical Muslim, preaching around at nights, saying his optional prayers in the middle of the night. He was visibly happy when he saw me and, after a few hesitant moments, was able to recognize me. We hugged each other and exchanged pleasantries. Then Bibi’s name came up, and right away I could see a veil of sadness coming over his face. Is Bibi OK, I asked anxiously. Yes, she is alright, but her life is gone. Lost her eyesight 10 years before. Her husband died. Became totally dependent on her older son since losing her eyesight.
At the beginning the son and daughter-in-law were looking after her quite well. But as the days rolled into months, then months into years, their attitudes also seemed to have stiffened. They would seem to find fault with everything she did, everything she said was the wrong thing. At last she had had enough-----couldn’t take it anymore. So one day she just packed up her things and moved in with her older daughter, Saleha, at her in-laws’ place. Not in the same area, but further west, at Chawkbazar. If I wanted to see her I’d have to go to Chawkbazar, that’s what the young man told me. I said, that was fine with me, but would he please send a word to his sister that Mijoobhai would be calling on her tomorrow.
Bibi was informed, apparently right away, so she had time to get prepared to receive me. As I knocked on their front-door a chubby little boy unbolted the door to let me in, and warmly greeted me with a sweet “you are my Mijoonana, right?” Then he got down on his knees to touch my feet in the customary gesture of obeisance to an older adult. He was followed, in quick order, by his younger siblings-----and they all went through the same feet-touching ritual. Well-mannered kids, I thought. Then came their mother, Saleha, who followed her children. Finally it was Bibi, our very dear Bibi. My childhood friend, my playmate. The one who learned the dates of my history books by heart just by listening to them. Yes, she had changed. I’d have hard time recognizing her if I didn’t know about her before. She didn’t have a single black hair on her head----it was all grey. And her mouth was almost entirely toothless. Those deep dark eyes that were so full of beguiling charm, were gone. Instead there was exhaustion, there was sadness and fatigue, resignation. Her dead eyes were fixed at me as if to look for something, some long lost treasure of hers.
Softly, silently, we pressed each other’s hand. The emotion that I never knew existed inside of me, now seemed to find an outlet to gush out like a torrential stream. Instinctively, I drew her close to my body, and held her in my arms for what appeared to be an eternity. Bibi wiggled her way out of my clutch, then started running her fingers over my arms, my body, and my face to get a feel of how I looked. Then she spilled out a few words, with her lips betraying a slight quiver: “Mijoobhai, what happened to your beautiful hair----it’s all bald!” We both laughed. I really didn’t have anything clever to say. All I could muster was this: “And you are no longer a ravishing beauty either----nothing but a grey-haired old grandma.”
We talked for a while. Reminisced a bit, recalling some of those beautiful times. Laughed a little, perhaps cried a little too, silently. Soon it was getting late. I couldn’t wait much longer. But Bibi wouldn’t let me leave so quickly. She insisted I’d have to eat something before leaving. And she wouldn’t take no for an answer. With that she rushed off to the kitchen, while I got cosy with her cute little grandchildren. They decided that their new ‘grandpa’ was really a fun-guy, with all the strange tales from all over the world. The young boy who had opened the door for me was called Salam. Seemed like a smart little fellow. Wants to go to high school, to college, to places where his Mijoonana had been. Be a lawyer, or a doctor, but not a bricklayer like his ancestors had been, or a coachman, a salesman. In fact, the wind of change had come the kutti way, too, just as it had in other places. Old ways of life were no longer the norm, rather exceptions. The kutti boys were now going to schools and colleges, some for higher education to far away countries.
While talking to the children I kept looking at my watch----it was now really getting late. My wife had warned me again and again not to spend too much time in the kutti area. You can never tell when someone will pick your pocket, or rob you down to your underwear. Or worse. There have been cases of random violence in those areas-----someone sneaking up behind you, put a knife on your back and leave you for dead, just for the fun of it. Yes, I know, my sweet wife could be a little paranoid, but still, I’d have to go back, right?
As I was getting really anxious in came Bibi with a plateful of something. Not the usual kind of Bengali dish or dessert-----no rice-and-curry, no rasagolla-pantoa-jilebi, no pilau-korma-kabab. On the plate, in clear view, was a heap of steaming ghumli, my childhood favorite. Irresistibly delicious, thatmouth-watering delicacy of my early adolescence. But alas, that was a long time ago, too long when you think of it. Alas, my poor girl, how shall I tell you that the stuff that was once so tempting for me, was now near the top of my strictly-forbidden list of items? How could I possibly tell that blind girl, who had no way of knowing that her Mijoobhai had long grown out of those early fixations of life, that ‘I’m sorry, my love, I can’t, I shouldn’t?’ I just didn’t have the heart. So I took a deep long breath, closed my eyes, then forced myself to gulp a mouthful or two, quietly, with not a single word spoken. She was happy.
I rose to leave. I just couldn’t wait any longer. She understood. She held my hands again---felt my face once more. Then quietly, with a silent tear in her dead eyes, said ‘bye’ to me. I bent down to caress the little children for the last time, then left, without looking back. Time stood still once again. Like the day Bibi left our house in her bridal dress. My innocent past was finally buried.
Ottawa, Dec.24, ’13.
( Translated by the author from his original Bengali story by the same title that was first published in the monthly ‘Mashik Bangladesh’, in 1992, then in the author’s first collection of stories called ‘Tirtha Amar Gram’, published in 1994)
Mizan Rahman :: মীজান রহমান