Translated from the Bengali: AHMEDE HUSSAIN
The sun hadn’t risen. The fog-ridden streets of this city were not safe for women, yet the girl tossed about the whole night in an unknown discontentment. It did not occur to her even for a moment to step outside her room to see if the light was on in her aged husband’s chamber, or to know whether he was asleep or deep at work. On the contrary, yesterday’s fiery touch of that young man was still wreaking havoc in the core of her soul, until now which had been left numbed, dead as an inactive volcano.
What had she really got from this old widowed man, whom her father had owed money at the time of their marriage? He had feelings for her, she knew, but what was the point of having it when the man himself lived on the memories of his dead wife? For his new young wife he felt a wave of lament in his heart, but that did not help himself with his own grief, with his own impotent failure; this defeat had made him open the door of his own house before this young man who was madly in love with his wife.
Before this happened, before the young man came to her life, the girl would shut herself out from the outside world. It was as though he had given her means to swim, to fly. Did it pain her husband? No, not at all, it was the other way round; whenever he stood before a mirror he saw a grey old face: he had married this girl only out of a sense of piety, knowing deep down in his heart that he loved only his first wife. The girl was young, she was beautiful, he thought, she should not be denied life; ‘See how happy she is,’ he would tell himself, ‘after that boy has come to her life.’
The night was getting old and Shahbagh was humming with life, she never knew that nights could be filled with such blissful mirth: there were the young with the old, from doctors to journalists to lovers – everyone sat in a circle, gossiping. The air brimmed with the aroma of food, of different spices; the girl clutched at the young man and mumbled, ‘I am hungry.’ He ran to get her something. The thick scents of fruits mingled with the pungent smell of sweat, along with it there was a transcendentally sweet melody in the air.
A sudden drizzle of rain transformed the scene; people ran helter-skelter, some stood in front of her, blocking the view, she was afraid of getting lost, of losing sight of him. Everyone wanted a little room in that small shade; some had cut a joyous caper. Rain always fascinated them both, but, alone now, that bubble of emotion was about to burst. With a quivering hand she pressed his number into her cellphone, the sound of which got muffled in this hustle and bustle.
Then, there he was, in one hand a package of food, which was sending out a savoury, delightful smell; in the other hand, she realised it only when he moved it forward, he held a kamini, sewed to a twig. Surprised, she wondered where in this mundane mêlée he could get this sweet scented flower. And when she looked into his deep delved eyes, when the whole city, it seemed, was floating in that smell, little did she realise that for the first time in her life a man was feeding her with his hand.
‘Rain! Rain!’ the girl cried out. In a transcendent voice the young man started singing: “On this day of monsoon, raindrops overwhelm my eyes”; a group of men circled round to listen to him. The girl whispered, ‘It’s getting late, dear. I am scared. I need to go home.’ There was bitterness in his reply, ‘Home? You call that old demon’s castle home?’
Her heart sank, she said, ‘Don’t say it like that. He has let me see you, how many husbands will do that?’
‘Husband?’ he asked, leading her on in the crowd, ‘You call him husband? What does he have to be called your husband?’
‘He did not marry me forcibly. I went to him with my own misery. And I still depend on him for bread and butter.’
The whole night these thoughts jostled in her mind. He said, ‘Come, live with me, you won’t have to beg for bread and butter in that demon’s castle.’ A fire sparked in her body at his touch. Then something happened. At the time she told him about this certain kind of failure of her husband, she vowed not to let the young man make use of the void that it created in her being. A change she noticed in him though, after he had been told about this incompleteness, this frailty, this impotency. When he had not known about this, what urge she had seen in him to hold her soul, to make her feel like a woman! But after those words had slipped out of her mouth at a bleak incautious moment, the man, it seemed, was getting more and more interested in her body alone. She felt suffocated. She did not want to split her being into two and give him her body at the expense of her soul.
Yesterday, kissing her hand, he said, ‘I want to marry you.’
The girl’s lips quivered, she said, ‘Do you not know that even more than the vilest of demons I fear penury? Since childhood it has ground me into pieces. A penniless pocket crushes one’s self-respect. It can trample you with sheer indignity because poverty is linked with one’s pennilessness.’ He hissed like a serpent: ‘Why do I need to listen to this? Do I not earn enough? The music that enchants me (here the girl opened her yes), why do you have to try to hush that song with the burden of your existence?’
He pulled her down to the carpet and, while giving her a thousand kisses when he was about to stroke her body, an unknown presentiment, an inexplicable fear crawled in her soul. She moved him away and shouted, ‘You are not the one for whom I have been waiting for so long, you are not the one whom, in my childhood, I had mistaken for my shadow.’
Angry, humiliated, he got up, ‘Lord! I never thought you were as sick as your husband.’
Then the whole night passed. In every speck of her existence she could feel the presence of his enchanting touch; for the first time in her life she felt like a complete human being. So she did not wait for the sun to rise; as fear had abandoned her, she waded through the fog like a woman possessed and knocked on the young man’s door: ‘I can’t take it any more. Believe me, I am not sick.’
Nasreen Jahan is a Bangladeshi novelist.
Ahmede Hussain is a writer and journalist. He is the editor of The New Anthem, an anthology of South Asian fiction in English. He is at work on his first novel; he lives and works in Dhaka, Bangladesh.