I heard skin slapping on skin. A dull thud. The gust of an “Oh!” followed by the tinkering of something delicate shattering into a million pieces. I sat up sleepily in bed. Padded bare-feet to my parents’ bedroom and walked into the beginning of an end.
Not that I knew it then, of course. I realized it eight years later. Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. I couldn’t see them then, but I know now that the signs were clear. That night, all I saw was my mother red-cheeked, scrambling to her feet and adjusting the ends of her saree modestly across her chest.
“It’s okay Sneha baby. Go back to sleep.” She said she had tripped and accidentally knocked the lamp from her dressing table. I believed her – the lampshade had indeed come off and was lying a few feet away from the base. Pieces of the light bulb were shattered across the floor. Leaving my parents in a dark place. My father’s back was to me, so I didn’t see his red eyes. Then. But I know he had them. And I’ve seen them often enough since.
That lampshade never got screwed back on straight. My mother tried and tried. But something tiny had broken and the slightest gust would tilt it. I wondered why she didn’t just call someone to fix the problem. She said broken things in the bedroom had to be solved quietly without any outsider. Strange logic. If there was someone qualified to solve such problems, why not seek help? As a ten-year-old child I had faith we would find someone to fix an askew lampshade. But Ma didn’t ask for help. And Baba didn’t seem much bothered by it. So I took my cue from him and didn’t concern myself much with it either.
I have no qualms in admitting that Baba was my favourite parent. Big and brawny, Baba’s appetite for life was only surpassed by his appetite for kacchi biriyani. Every December, the wedding season in Bangladesh, he would put on a few more kilograms. It was funny to watch the guests run the race to an altar groaning with copious amounts of food. Some nights we would attend multiple weddings. Our personal record: five. And Baba ate at every one of them.
By the fifth one, he was fit to burst. He sat amongst the dazzling, gorgeous women, the dashing, suited men – a head above them, as usual. At six feet two inches that was no surprise. I remember watching him laugh, head thrown back, his chair tilted on its two back legs. A beautiful woman sitting next to him placed her hand on his chest as if to caution him, smiling into his eyes. I felt surprised that Ma didn’t do that. She was usually attentive towards him at home. But no, she was sitting on the other side, feet firmly planted, palms faced down on the table. She was looking intently at her plate of food but not eating. The strange part…Baba and this woman looked perfectly poised in their precarious positions. It was Ma who looked off-balance.
Daisy Aunty. That was her name. The beautiful woman from the wedding. I saw her a few more times but I can’t recall the exact details of when or where. I remember Lubna Aunty clearly though. She had driven up to our gate and honked twice. Baba came out, the screen door banging shut behind him as he took long strides down our driveway. Baba got annoyed when I banged the screen door like that. But, like every parent, he made his own rules. He ruffled my hair as he walked past and got into Lubna Aunty’s car. She gave me an enthusiastic wave, her golden brown arm waving across Baba’s chest. But she never got to see me return her smile because Baba reached for her arm and placed it on his lap. And with a giggle she zoomed off. I turned back to the house, feeling slightly dejected; wishing Baba had waited just a few seconds so Lubna Aunty could have seen me smile. What was the rush anyway? Then, I saw Ma standing behind the screen door. Our cleaning maid had been shirking her duties and had not cleaned the screen recently– Ma’s face looked so dark and hazy. I flashed her a bright smile, but she probably didn’t appreciate being second choice. That was why she didn’t smile back, I assured myself.
After Lubna Aunty was Elora Aunty, Maya Aunty and then Sonia Aunty. Or was it the other way round? I’m not sure. Each Aunty was younger and prettier than the previous one. And with each, Ma got older, darker, smaller, drier. It was as if the women had somehow sneaked into her bedroom and purloined the collection of moisturizers on top of her dressing table, bottle by bottle.
Ma used to have a huge range of moisturizers once. Baba would buy her the latest one from the Duty Free shops whenever he travelled. There was a day cream, a night cream, a sun cream, an after-sun cream, an eye cream, a hand cream, a foot cream. I used to love lining them up – the tallest ones at the back, the smaller ones in front. The way a family should stand. Or for variety I would place them alternately. Even in that pattern they made sense in my mind’s eye. But Ma stopped using them. They got grimy and goopy so Ma threw them in the dustbin. The remaining few stood sparsely and somehow no matter what pattern I placed them in, they never looked quite right together. Baba didn’t buy her new moisturizers to replace the tossed ones so the spaces between them kept on increasing.
Once when I heard raised voices, I thought she was asking for new bottles. I heard the hiss of “replacements” and the slurring of “bedroom”. I went to their room and saw Baba red-eyed and angry. Ma was red-eyed and teary. I must have been red-eyed too, I thought, that must be why my eyes blurred. Baba looked at me for the split moment it took to make the hair on the back of my neck rise, and then walked off. Ma leaned heavily forward on her dressing table, fiddling with the bottles, not meeting my glance. I decided she was counting them. Yes, she must be counting her bottles, so Baba can buy her the exact number it would take for them to line up properly, just like they used to.
The lines on my mother’s face got deeper. Of course they would. I saw her trash the last few bottles with a desultory sweep of her arm. Practical thing to do, I guess. She had stopped using them so they weren’t even worth the effort it took to dust them and keep them looking presentable in the bedroom. That lamp on her dressing table blew a fuse. Ma didn’t replace the bulb. It popped loudly one evening, giving her a start initially. Then she must have gotten used to the darkness. Because she stayed in bed. In her housecoat. With her dishevelled hair. Napping at odd hours. By the time I became a teenager she even smelt sour. Like something forgotten at the back of a cupboard that no one had admired in a while.
By the time I was in Class VIII, I didn’t need my Biology book to explain the facts of life to me. Fact one: Baba sometimes didn’t come home at night but he always returned later. Fact two: Ma sometimes didn’t leave the house yet she was always absent. Fact three: I didn’t care. Why should I? They were my parents, they were supposed to be looking out for me. But Baba was too active. And Ma was inert. No one had time or space for me. My classmates fretted over pimples. I was trying to contain the pus building up under my skin..
The only thing Ma wore with grace at that point was her look of well-earned hurt. Till today I can’t stand women like that. The ones who carry the hurt in their eyes but won’t say anything or do anything to get their myopic vision corrected. We have a saying in Bengali: Bukh fatay tobu mukh futay na. Roughly translated it means to stay silent no matter what. As if there’s an honour in that. What honour? I want to know. Honour for whom? I want to know. Honouring who? I want to know. Bloody Bengali sentimentality! I have no time for it.
I was too busy working out my game plan. I studied the bare minimum so I passed under the radar of my teachers. Choosing neither to excel nor fail. I kept my head down as I scoped for opportunities. Anything to help me get away from home. I made friends with the loud boisterous crowd. My father’s daughter, it came naturally enough to me. To joke and laugh and be popular with my peers. It was so easy to put on different personas. There was no emotional investment so there was no fear of loss. I didn’t need my Class VIII Economics book to teach me that either.
I finally graduated from high school last month. Draped on the arm of the best-looking boy in our class, I sailed down the aisle sniffing the air for freedom. The class Valedictorian gave a speech about solid foundations, sound launches and soaring futures. Blah blah blah. My father was sitting tall and proud. Beaming at me, taking pictures. Leaning into the young woman next to him and whispering something to her. She threw daggers at me. As I did her.
Novera Helal. The new hell on heels. Twenty-two year old bank intern. Supposed to be learning the ins and outs of banking. Figured out how to get in with her boss, my father. Claimed it was love at first sight. Right. Like I can’t calculate how much money it takes to want to sleep with a fifty-nine year old man. Whatever was in my Baba’s bank account. Everything that was in my Baba’s bank account. Rumour had it that she had broken up with her boyfriend within days of meeting Baba. Even from that distance, I could see her perfectly manicured claws placed on Baba’s arm. Staking her claim. Which was totally unnecessary. Firstly, Baba had left us nine weeks ago and married her. Secondly, Ma had long ago lost the ability to make reclamations and proclamations.
Ma sat many rows behind them, unseen in the left corner. Her face was turned towards me but I knew her eyes were not focused. Even up close it was hard to tell whether my mother ever saw me. She seemed lost in a sea of people she didn’t know. Her husband being the most unknown stranger of them all. If my father was an island unto himself, my mother was certainly the empty bottle floating adrift. Never mind. I intended to wash away the distaste of all those thoughts with a few swigs of beer at our unofficial graduation party at the Shang-Ri-La restaurant.
And what a party it was! When I walked in at ten pm with my best friend Mitali, the dance floor was already packed. Not ready to feel the grind of eager puberty against my thighs or smell the testosterone-spiced body odour of teenage boys, I headed for the drinks table.
It was four bodies deep and impossible to wiggle my way through to the waiter. I wedged my arm through the crowd, hoping to part the bodies. My fingers accidentally grazed someone’s chest but I couldn’t see the face through the crowd. Suddenly someone clasped my hand and I was sucked into the middle of the jamboree. Pressed close, I looked up at a man who was definitely not a teenager. Curly brown hair. Dark eyes. Gravelly skin. Nice. Very nice. I couldn’t catch my breath. He smiled, the right side of his lips curling up.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Pretty hand like that. How can a man not reach out and pull the owner to him?”
I tried pushing myself away from him but there was no room. “I want a beer,” I said, for lack of anything else to say.
“Follow me,” he said. Still holding my hand, he turned towards the table. With my arm pinned across the front of his chest, I automatically pressed my body full against his back. And quivered. The sensation of his muscles close to mine as we worked our way through the pack exhilarated me. We were one unit against them. Weaved to the table. Got two beers. Weaved out of the crowd. When he loosened his hold and handed me my drink, I already felt intoxicated.
“Thanks.” I mumbled and took a deep gulp. The fizz tickled my nostrils making my eyes water. This time his smile curled both sides of his lips up.
“We haven’t met before. I’m Tarek Alam.”
“Sneha Kabir. Nice to meet you.”
“Are you one of the graduates?”
“Congratulations. Welcome to the big bad world.”
“And you? Are you…”
“A graduate? No, no! I work in a pharmaceutical company. I completed my BBA this month.”
“Oh.” I knew the graduation party was supposed to be by invite only so I assumed he was someone’s cousin or older brother or friend. I certainly didn’t want to ask him and reveal myself as a complete social retard. Tarek Alam had thrown me off-centre but it was time to regain control.
Not that I had to try that hard. I knew how to lay the charm on thick. Even when I wasn’t interested in a boy, I sometimes liked to set myself the challenge of winning him over. Honing my inherited skills. So that I would never suffer the same humiliation my mother had. Needless to say, Tarek stayed by my side for the rest of the evening. And I have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed his attention. He was a college man in a whirlpool of high school graduates. A twenty-three year old rugged face amongst baby cheeks. No-brainer.
At two a.m. when the party was dying down, Tarek offered to drop Mitali and me home. I accepted before Mitali could say no. Nothing was discussed about the route. We all knew she would be dropped off first of course. And then finally he and I were alone in the car. I sat on my hands to keep them from shaking. He glanced at me, winked and smiled.
“I don’t know if you will like my kind of music so feel free to find a radio station of your choice.”
“Why wouldn’t I like your music?”
“Well, I don’t listen to trance or house or such.”
“Neither do I,” I answered haughtily, not liking the juvenile treatment. “I’ll have you know I listen to a wide variety of music.”
“Oh, is that so? Ever heard of Jason Mraz?’ He asked with a laugh that caught in the back of his throat. His voice was deep and penetrated some untouched part of me, a warm sensation gathering in a pool in my lap.
“Yes,” I answered. “And I really like him.”
He looked at me intently.
“Really,” I insisted.
He switched on the CD player and the smooth buttery voice of Mraz glided over us. Normally I disliked being stuck in traffic. But, God, I prayed hard for a major consignment of those long-distance night trucks to slow down our trip from Gulshan to Dhanmondi. Or a flat tire. Anything that would give me a few extra minutes in the car’s dark interior with Tarek.
So of course, we got home much too quickly. Dammit.
“Well…” He leaned over.
“Well…thanks for the ride home.” I waited for the contact.
With a click he reached across me and opened my door. Oh. That kind of pissed me off. Maybe he wasn’t all the man I thought him to be.
“Goodnight,” I said and climbed out of the car.
“Yes?” I leaned down and looked at him through the passenger window.
“Can I call you some time?”
“Uh…yeah…I guess that would be okay.” Yes! Yes! Yes!
Tarek called me the very next day. And the day after that. And the day after that. It was easy to talk to him. He was funny and articulate. He never let me pay for any of our coffee dates. Big change from going Dutch with the high school boys. Our coffee dates became dinners. And then the dinners became post-dinner trysts. We started seeing each other almost daily. Weekend nights were spent in his apartment. Cooking ridiculously easy food like three-minute noodle casseroles. Watching the “Lost” series on DVD. Drinking and feeding off each other. Initially, I would sneak back home at dawn. But then when I realized the only person who knew I had been gone all night was our long-suffering night guard, Chand Mia, I thought, “Why bother?” I decided to spare Chand Mia the misery and would go off with Tarek on Thursday evenings and return on Saturday.
Ma occasionally muttered a protest or a question. But I paid her no heed. One broken lamp and you came undone. Really? You are going to stop me from entering adult life with headlights full on? I don’t think so. There was no room in my life for dark corners. No room for women who could not grab life by the balls. No room for women in dark corners who could not grab life by the balls because her husband could not keep his where they belonged. I was eighteen, at my prime, and if I wanted to make anything out of my life, this was the time. Tarek was going to be my ticket out of this illusory home.
My contact with Baba had dwindled to perfunctory phone calls. Yes, I’m fine. No, I haven’t heard from any colleges yet. Yes, she is fine. No, I don’t need any money. Since when did you care whether I was fine or not? Why do you ask about colleges? So you can be rid of me? No she is not fine, she has not been fine, she will never be fine…but what are you going to do about it? No, I don’t need any money. What I need, you do not give. Why do you not give me what I need? Am I that unlovable a child? Okay bye. Bye! Bye!
The only thing I didn’t discuss with Tarek was my family situation. I don’t know why really. Maybe I didn’t want him to think I was messed up from it all. Or I didn’t want him to think less of me because my parents couldn’t be better than they were. Maybe I didn’t tell him because he didn’t ask. Or maybe I didn’t tell him because he sensed things about me without having to tell him. That’s what I loved most about him.
One night, as we lay in bed and I traced paths across his chest hair, my finger found a bump on his skin. I looked closely and saw a surgical scar.
“How did you get that?” I asked him.
“Oh, something that happened a long time ago.”
“Did it hurt when it happened?”
“Yes. But it’s healed now. I can’t even remember the details anymore.”
vI looked at him in wonder. Could he be right? Could something that hurt a long time ago heal with time till it didn’t hurt anymore? If you stitched a gap shut would it blend into the landscape of things at some point and be forgotten?
“Yes,” he said.
“Yes all things heal. They leave a little painless bump on the skin. But they heal.”
“I didn’t ask you anything.”
“You didn’t have to, baby. I read it in your eyes.” And then he kissed me deeply, his tongue untangling the knots in my stomach. His warm moistness rehydrating me.
I loved him for that. I loved that he could see the vulnerability in me without making me defensive. I loved that he probed without poking holes through me. I loved that he understood without being told.
That Saturday I came home singing love songs in my head. Came home to find Baba and Ma sitting in the living room waiting for me. The CD tripped as my heart went offbeat for a second.
“Sneha, where have you been?” Baba asked. Ma cowered behind. So, she’d called in the troops, had she? What a joke! She had called in the very man who single-handedly tore apart our lives? Oh Ma. Even in your strongest moment, you choose your weakest link.
“Out, with friends,” I answered.
“No one you know,” Or could be bothered enough to know.
This started off a torrent of words. I saw his mouth moving. Heard words like ‘impressionable,’ ‘reputation,’ and phrases like ‘only want to protect you’. But nothing registered in my head except the last: “This must stop, right now!”
“Sneha! Did you hear me? I forbid you to see this fellow whoever he is!”
I felt strangely aloof. “Baba. I don’t think you can forbid me to do anything anymore. It’s too late for that.” Although the words came out slow and steady, their impact in the room ricocheted and came back at me, making me breathless. Two giant strides brought Baba face to face with me, his hand raised to slap.
I stood my ground.. I stared Baba in the face until his hand melted to his side. Ma had disintegrated into tears. I looked at them standing next to each other. How many years had I dreamt of such a scene? I couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. I should have known the only thing that would bring them side by side was facing me off. But no book had told me this obvious fact.
“Go to your room Sneha. We’ll discuss this in the morning,” Baba said.
When I was in my room I called Tarek. Told him I couldn’t bear to be at home anymore. Said I would explain everything but could he just come get me. Tarek tried to calm me down.
“Don’t you love me?” I screamed into the phone. “Why won’t you come get me?”
“Sneha, baby, please. Of course I love you. I want to marry you. But this is not how I want to do it,” he answered.
I blubbered. He listened. I wept and he consoled. After some time, when I was finally thinking more clearly, we agreed to meet early next morning.
At six a.m., when I knew Chand Mia would be in his room saying the dawn prayers, I walked out of the gate with my suitcase in hand. Tarek was waiting for me at the end of the road as planned. I got in. Without a word we drove away. I had fought so long for this moment that I had no more energy left to acknowledge it. Tarek was looking straight ahead at the road, a determined expression on his face.
We had breakfast at the twenty-four hour Star cafe, dawdling over our teas. Then we drove around aimlessly, waiting till it was time to head to our destination. Tarek had found out that the Mirpur Kazi Office, where one could get married, opened at eight a.m. I didn’t want to risk going to his place before we had officially signed our marriage deed in case my parents called Mitali and got Tarek’s details from her.
By eight thirty, I stopped being a broken forgotten piece of a family and became part of a whole. Tarek and I drove back to his apartment. Our home. He was very quiet. Maybe, I thought, he was worrying about how we were going to manage. Or how his parents would react. Or how much of a punch my father could still pack.
“Don’t worry, Jaan,” I said. “It’ll be alright.”
He looked at me with his piercing black eyes. “Yes, I know. Things will finally be set right now.” No smile. Poor man. He must be so tired. When we got home, he excused himself and went to the study room. I heard him opening a drawer. Oh wow…could it be that he had a ring ready for me? Yay!
I went to the bedroom and put my suitcase down. Despite the fact that we had started off unconventionally, I felt the need to do at least something the ‘proper way.’ I rummaged through my clothes, trying to find my red silk pajamas. Giggling to myself, I took them out hastily. My passport and money fell out of the suitcase. Picking them up, I decided to keep them safely stashed somewhere else. So, I opened the bedside drawer. There was a photo inside. Excited, thinking it to be a picture of us, I looked at it closely. Uh…Novera Helal? Why did he have a photo of Novera Helal in his bedside drawer?
“Tarek, why…?” I started to ask loudly. But before I could finish my question, I saw that he was already in the bedroom. He snatched the photo from my hands and clasped it to his chest. I was dumbfounded.
“Don’t touch! Don’t you dare touch her,” He growled. “Your father does enough of that as it is.”
I stared at him. The cogs in my brain grinded to a halt. And then, painfully with a protest, the wheel turned and the pieces started falling into place. I realized how he had understood me all this while without ever having to ask.
“Her boyfriend. Her first true love. Her soul-mate,” he finished for me. His eyes narrowed. The lips were pressed cruel thin. “And then your father, your decaying decrepit father spoiled it all.”
I changed gear. “Why didn’t you tell me, my Jaan? How you must have suffered!” I reached for him thinking I would tell him that this in fact made our bond stronger. To be united against a man who had hurt us both. Who had forced the bitterness of rejection down our throats. I wanted to make this right again. But Tarek didn’t give me a chance. With a swift move, he threw me onto the bed. When I tried to get up, he stomped his foot onto my chest and stopped me. Propped up on my elbows, I stared in disbelief at this perfect man turned into a stranger.
“Tell you! Tell you what? The exact decibel of social jeering? The smell of stale roses returned to sender? The level of my public humiliation? We were fine. We were fine until your father came with his potbelly full of money. And suddenly, she couldn’t wait for me anymore. I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t rich enough. I even went to your father. He could have any girl he wanted. I just wanted him to let me have my Novera. I begged him not to stand in the way of our love. Do you know what he said?”
Stunned into silence, I shook my head.
“He laughed and said: ‘What bloody Bengali sentimentality!’ He didn’t even give it a second thought and threw me out of his office. Said if I dared come near Novera again he would file a case with the police.”
“But Tarek, what does that have to do with me? Why are you taking it out on me? I didn’t do anything.” I protested, near to tears. Hurting from his foot on my chest. Burning from the red-hot anger he hurled at me.
“You didn’t have to do anything. You are your father’s daughter.”
My father’s daughter...Yes, I was my father’s daughter. I spoke like him. I thought like him. Behaved like him. But perhaps I was my mother’s daughter too. Someone who realized the truth a little too late.
Tarek reached into his pocket and took something out. I don’t know which scared me more. The glint of cold in his eyes, or the glint of steel in his hand.