The Crack in the Door
We’re showcasing two new writers from Bangladesh courtesy of Ahsan Akbar and Anis Ahmed, co-organisers of Hay Festival Dhaka. Read yesterday’s memoir, ‘Dogfight Over Karachi’ by Khademul Islam here.
In Chaudhuri’s forthcoming memoir, Beloved Strangers, she offers a moving account of growing up and growing away – from Dhaka to New York – and explores the impossibility of return. The economic or lifestyle conditions for staying away are well known. The political ones well understood. In this excerpt, for Chaudhuri, the quest and the hurdles are near spiritual.
Ahsan Akbar and Anis Ahmed
Image courtesy of Maria Chaudhuri
The room is square and semi-dark; heavy curtains block the sunlight. There are two single beds joined together to make one large double bed where I sleep with my sisters. Two wooden dressers, one black, one brown, stand on either side of the bed. Through the crack in the door I can see the leg of my new Barbie on top of the brown dresser. I also see my mother sitting on the bed with her harmonium, flipping through sheets of music. Her guru sits across from her, cross-legged, humming and tapping his fingers on the polished surface of the instrument. I want my doll but I dare not step inside the room. When my mother practises music, the world is her enemy.
Until she was six, my mother lived in the tiny, sleepy town of Comilla, about a hundred kilometres southeast of Dhaka. Then her father died unexpectedly from kidney failure at the age of forty, and his passing left my grandmother a widow at twenty-four. My grandmother moved into her brother’s home with three small children, of whom Mother was the second. From then on, they moved from one town to another due to the nature of Mother’s uncle’s work.
Her uncle had loved her like a father, pampered her more than his own children and made sure that, despite the frequent relocations, Mother was not deprived of what pleased her most: music. Wherever they went, he found a music teacher for her, and by the time she was a teenager, she had won a number of trophies and certificates for her musical talent at school and other local functions. At the end of high school, when most of her friends left their small town to go to college in the big city, my mother didn’t care. She was absorbed in her music, ecstatic that the local radio stations had started to schedule her for regular appearances.
The first time it was arranged for my father to see his prospective bride – my mother – was during one of her weekly radio programmes. The two families thought it best that my father should see her from afar, without her knowledge. Meeting face to face, even if chaperoned, was not considered proper. So my father turned up at the radio station, stood outside a glass-enclosed studio and watched a skinny nineteen-year-old singing in a voice so mesmerizing that he forgot why he was there.
My father went home to tell everyone he had found his bride. My mother went home, completely unaware that her song had led her to her future husband. Though Mother knew she would have to consider marriage sooner or later, given her own mother’s exhaustive search for a groom, it did not stop her from feeling a jolt of panic when my father, eager and smitten, asked for her hand. She was hesitant to leave the uncomplicated rhythm of her life where music was her only partner, but how much longer could she continue to refuse her suitors and hold out against her mother’s wish to see her married and settled? I presume she wanted to put an end to the ever-persistent reminder that she was her widowed mother’s last burden. Had she chosen to refuse, however, deciding to pursue music instead of marriage, her uncle promised to stand by her. Yet my mother agreed to the match with an unexpected ferocity. ‘I’m ready,’ she declared, ‘start the preparations right away.’
Once she gave her consent, my mother refused to discuss the matter any further, letting her family busy themselves with the minutiae of the wedding. Finding her in bed in the middle of the day, while the house bustled with wedding activity, her grandmother approached her quietly.
‘Are you well dear?’ she asked Mother.
‘Yes I am.’
‘Don’t you at least want to know what he looks like?’
‘What’s the point? I’m still going to marry him,’ said Mother.
‘You don’t have to marry him if you don’t want to.’
‘It doesn’t matter now.’
‘Don’t say that!’
‘Fine, tell me what he looks like,’ my mother said in a resigned voice.
Her grandmother brightened. ‘Oh he’s very handsome, more fair-skinned than any man I’ve seen. His skin is so light you can see the veins underneath. Such white-white children you’ll have!’
There was the faintest smile across my mother’s face. Her grandmother sighed and placed a hand on her granddaughter’s head.
The wedding took place in Comilla, and on the night of the wedding, Ismail the servant boy fell into a cauldron of boiling milk and went half insane. Later, he confided that the djinns had come to him when everyone was busy with the festivities. They came in the guise of three exquisite and identical young women. In the smoky kitchen, a horrified Ismail recognized their unblinking stares and backed away from them until he fell into the drum of scalding milk. He never heard the message they had come to deliver. The sounds of firecrackers and wedding music drowned his screams for help.
That same night, my father was to take his new bride and make the three-hour journey back to his Dhaka home. He had instructed his best friend to convert his small bachelor pad into a bridal suite, replete with flowers, candles and a heavy lace bedspread. A table was laden with trays of multi-coloured sweets and tall pitchers of almond and coconut milk. His friend waited to receive the exhausted bride and groom. But once the bride and groom were on their way, the driver turned around and announced that he was taking them to my father’s sister’s house.
‘Why?’ asked my bewildered father.
‘It is your sister’s order,’ the driver shrugged.
My father opened his mouth to say something then closed it again. His older sister was not someone he could easily disobey. Besides, he fully expected his sister to provide him with a good reason for the sudden change of plan. To my father’s surprise, days passed and his sister never offered a valid explanation for the forced detour. When confronted, she only feigned surprise at his assumption that there might have been any ulterior motive to her wish. She had only been trying to help by opening up her home to them on their wedding night. She had not wanted the new bride to feel lonely in my father’s bachelor pad, without the presence of family members. And yet, when my father and mother reached his sister’s house late into their wedding night, they were greeted with very little cheer. Lifting the pleats of her heavy red sari off her dainty feet, my mother wearily made her way up the dark, cramped staircase. There were no festive decorations, no warm welcome waiting for them. The maid sleepily served them some leftover fish curry from the night before. After dinner, my parents spent their first night together in a tiny, airless room that had been hurriedly cleared for them, while, in another part of the city, a fragrant room with a dreamy white bed glowed softly until all the candles burnt out.
In 1971, a year after their wedding, when war broke out between East and West Pakistan, my parents lived in a bungalow on the top of a hill in Chittagong, where my father worked for the Pakistan Tobacco Company. My mother stayed at home with one-year-old Naveen, an old Nepali ayah and Harun the cook. The garden was the best part of their sprawling colonial-style bungalow. Huge red dahlias and bushes of wild tulips sprang robustly out of the mountain earth. When the midday sun grew softer, the ayah took Naveen out in a stroller for long walks. My mother sat in the secluded garden and sipped cup after cup of tea. But the nights were bad. The sound of gunfire, sirens and hand grenades pierced the dark. Every once in a while, screams floated up the lonely mountain roads. Or did she imagine them? Once my mother woke in the middle of the night and her heart caught in her throat at the sight of a malevolent face pressed against the windowpane. In the morning she found a bird, half-eaten and caked in dried blood, just outside her window, and realized it had only been a fox. She must have been lonely in a strange city, away from her family.
The officers came during the day, when my father was at work and Harun had gone to the market. The way my mother referred to men from the West Pakistani army as ‘the officers’ somehow made them sound larger than life, mythical almost, and helped me to fathom the countless accounts I’d heard of Bengali men, women and children brutalized at the hands of these soldiers. The ayah was playing with Naveen when the doorbell rang. My mother opened the door. ‘They were very tall,’ she said, ‘Tall in that Pakistani way.’ Their eyes swept over her slim body. She was small, like most Bengali women. They were polite, even when they walked into our living room, uninvited. They didn’t raise their voices or utter obscenities. They walked in as if they were always going to walk into our house, as if our house was not the sacred body that gave us shelter but one that could be entered by anyone. My mother didn’t try to stop them. She stood near the door and watched. Then they heard my sister’s voice, chattering away with the ayah. A child? A girl? They must see her, immediately.
Things were shifting, happening too fast, as if in a disjointed dream. The ayah stifled a scream as one of the officers took Naveen from her arms. The officer hugged Naveen to his chest and kissed her on both cheeks. ‘I have a daughter just her age,’ he said. The officers gave my sister a small piece of candy before they left. The war ended in a year. East Pakistan gained its independence from West Pakistan and Bangladesh was born out of the dismemberment.
Every time my mother shares this story, I imagine the solitary figure of a young woman, outside a beautiful bungalow on a hill, on quiet afternoons, her spirit moving above and beyond the mountains. And I see that there is a warrior-like attitude in the woman’s posture, a certain defensive quality to her solitude. That is what I see also as I peep through the crack in the door. ?
Ahsan Akbar is the author of The Devil’s Thumbprint, a collection of poems.
K. Anis Ahmed is the author of two books: Good Night, Mr. Kissinger, a short story collection and The World In My Hands, a novel.
Granta 125: After the War is out now. For more, read an excerpt from Aminatta Forna’s ‘1979’ on the Iranian Revolution, new fiction from Valério Romão and an excerpt from Hari Kunzru’s ‘Stalkers’.