Translated from the Bengali by Bishnupriya Chowdhuri
My daughter’s face on the other side of the lamp appears sharp, brassy the next moment, and at times, waterlike, spreading across the room. For the first time, I see her completely. Amid this blazing quietude, it feels absurd to accept the fact that once my insignificant womb nested this woman, fiercely coming of age.
Someone knocks at the door. She lashes out bitterly.
“Who uses a hurricane lamp in the 20th century?”
I reach for the door. Pins and needles run down my longer leg. Shifting weight on that one, I get the lock.
No one answers.
This has been happening lately. Someone knocks at odd hours. I open the door to the chilly wind. I am sure it’s the wind again. Daughter laughs.
“Seems like it…”
I come back to look at the half-done crochet under the dim light.
“Aren’t you the pinchpenny!” she taunts. “What’s the harm in getting a chargeable light? Every second day, power goes down for hours.”
“Every second person in the city these days gets one, there’s nothing unique about it, isn’t it ?”
“That’s not even relevant, Ma. Why would you not reap the benefits of the modern conveniences within your capacity?” she seems annoyed. “Then get rid of the damn TV and the fridge too.”
“Hurricane lamps are still in use in the villages and the towns though they are obsolete now in the cities. If everyone tries to behave in the same way…”
I am beginning to lose it and I know that. Soon, I’ll have to fold in front of her aggressive rationale. But I go on grappling, “We should, as a matter of fact, own a few things that set us apart.”
“Like a hurricane lamp?” she mocks.
“Take this crochet-knitting, for example,” I continue with renewed enthusiasm. “Because it requires great patience, it is disappearing from most households. And this lamp? What is wrong with it? It glows with such a mysterious charm, yet it is not as shameless as the open flame of a candle that seems to want to swallow everything with that lolling tongue.”
She starts laughing.
“Is this even valid reasoning, Ma? I wonder what sort of wrong teachings you are raising me with.”
“Have I ever imposed any of my reasonings on you?”
“Well, there is this is one, right here. I have to endure the hurricane lamp. If you can’t invent something new, at least enjoy the modern benefits. What is so special in clinging on to dated traditions?”
I go to bed.
I dream of running on two legs. I am about ten years old, much, much younger than my daughter. Dreams, such as this, are rare for me. Even though it would be only normal if they occurred frequently. The only explanation I can think of is, even though I have no complex about my two unequal legs, I have thought about it a lot. Maybe, the wall I have erected to resist all qualms is so strong that even dreams cannot make their way through. Still, I have seen myself walking with ease. In fact, it felt somehow awkward. Also, never did I get to slip out of my real age.
But today, this one was distinctly different. I ran free, unspoiled. And, I was my childhood self, I woke up, and lit the lamp to check on those legs as if two teenage brothers of different ages, growing up together but one never outgrowing the other. The girl with disheveled hair on the wall laughs strangely. Why do I even keep such images of unkempt girls, my daughter gets annoyed. Well-wishers mark all my ways as odd. Why wouldn’t they? What they really try to indicate though is my abnormal build. I don’t have a stride but a crawl. Abnormal!
Once, I used to be overrun with tears from within. Unsurmountable pain where hell and heaven would come crashing in. I was turning into a young woman in that twisted form that won’t ever change, that which would stick with me for the rest of my life… I stopped walking if someone was around. I would stay put like a bale on the bed for hours.
Then at one point, I convinced myself. Beautifully clear. Everybody has two equal legs. They walk with ease. However ugly, I was a class apart, different.
I loved growing flowers and was addicted to gardening. I used to teal and teal, and from that obnoxious muck, came out all kinds of miracles in red and yellow. Many have this weakness. The more ordinary the people are, the better flowers bloom in their hands. I constantly wondered, what could I do that others would not?
My heart jumps… sucking out the bright green glow of the beacon. Was it that mysterious draft again at this hour of the night? I dragged myself to get the door and find my daughter. “Ma, I had a bad dream, she blurts in a strange voice.”
“Nightmares are good to have… Come, sleep with me.”
“You always got to say the oddest of things,” she snaps like a mother. “Did you just keep the door shut?”
As we lay on the bed, I caress her hair.
“Thought it was the door outside and locked mine by mistake.”
“Maa, why did you say, it’s good to have bad dreams…” she breaks into itty bitty giggles. “Do you too believe in such superstitions?”
Sinking down into the warmth of the quilt, I reply, “I have my reasons, hope you won’t dismiss it for the sake of argument.”
“Maa, you have a cold belly.”
“You used to be there.”
“You say it as if this has never happened to anyone else.”
“You youngsters take everything so easily, just like water! Probably it is my problem that I couldn’t imagine you growing up, turning into a young lady, and you don’t seem like my daughter.”
“Then what do I seem like… a friend?”
“Nope, not even that. It seems like you once used to be inside my bag. Now that you are out in the open air and the lights… you won’t ever return. You are a stranger, far gone.”
“Don’t you talk like that.”
She rubs her cold hands against my warm palm and says, “I feel bad… By the way, you never explained the logic of the dream.”
“For me, if I get a really good one like I am traveling around different countries or have a rare gift, I wake up feeling rotten to the core knowing nothing of those really happened. But imagine, a killer is chasing you in your dreams and you are running for your dear life along endless paths. Then the killer grabs you. Or I have died leaving you alone in the entire house. You shroud my body with a white cloth. You will be so light after you wake up. You will be happy knowing all of that was but a figment of a dream which has passed. Are you asleep already?”
Secretly, I read the book of dreams, Khwaab Nama. While I did brandish the ‘logic’ of dreams, in truth though, I believe in good and bad dreams, palmistry, and above all, the powers of the stones. There are a couple of those engraved into the gold ring on my fingers. My daughter thinks of them as ornaments. Can everything be revealed to a daughter?
Nowhere in the book of dreams do I find anything on the benefits or the drawbacks of the dream of a limp girl running free on two perfect legs.
Someone knocks on the door.
That was Pintu, the boy next door. My daughter comes into the living room, leaving her studies. I had taught her that eavesdropping was wrong and she had learned it by heart but I pretend to wash my hands in the dining room basin and listen to them. They are very frank and free. I know they are just friends… If Pintu ever proposed to her, she’ll probably just laugh it away. But they are discussing all kinds of sexual matters. Pintu shares his experience of visiting the brothel.
My ears cannot bear it anymore. My daughter isn’t even fifteen. I feel devastated and throw myself to bed, coming down with a severe headache.
Unlike other mothers, I opened her to the facts of life early on when she hit puberty: about the first bleed, about love and marriage, and so on. They teach all these in foreign countries. So, I never saw any problem with that. But have I also not mentioned that everything has its time? Will she keep spiraling only into my teachings?
This is who she is, that’s what she is trying to prove. Someday, she might bring home some street urchin and convince me that this was the man for her. I feel afraid… very sickly afraid. Because no one ever gets attracted to me, my attention always gets fixed on her. Only If I had another—any other engagement, I could rid myself of this toxic affection.
For years, I have been searching for this book—an autobiography of a crippled woman—perceptions, and philosophies of her life. I read about Helen Keller but she was blind by birth, so I couldn’t really relate to her understanding of light and shadows. Should I assume that there has not been any female author who had a deformity? Then, overcome by a sense of unyielding obstinacy, I find my way to be truly unique—I shall write my autobiography and publish it.
What was so special about my growing up—my father’s unceasing affection, my mother’s flowing tears looking at my condition. Not much, really.
The passing away of my parents, the estranged brothers, the ownership of this house getting transferred to my name, and the greedy asshole who married me just for this, his death… yes, frequent deaths have always surrounded me.
But then, here I am, living rather comfortably with my daughter, with the rent from the ground floor. There is hardly any struggle.
But I have been longing for a man, handsome, and with two proper legs.
Everyone walks on normally, and I lumber clumsily like a frog, my specialty, and press my face against the folds of a book. Ah, the damp smell! I remove the sad girl from the wall.
I dive into the intricacy of fine white crochet and arrive at the waterfall of Madhabkunda in the middle of the dense, cold wilderness where it ran endlessly. “Beautiful!” I exclaimed, clasping my father’s finger. Oh, how long has it been since I have seen anything “beautiful!”
I put another image on the wall… a cat covering half the face of a man with disheveled hair… I can hear my daughter commenting, “Where on earth do you get these from?
I take the scooter straight from home and then climb four floors.
“You, at this hour?”
Mahmuda seems surprised.
I pour myself into the sofa and don’t respond.
“Any bad news?”
The air seems strange in her room. I know this smell. I tell myself. How?
Our cat used to have it. Yes, that one too, had died. It fell in the gutter on a winter night. I crimped my nose looking for a cat and asked if she had one nearby…
“No way! You know I’m allergic.”
“That’s what I thought too, then where did the smell come from? Has my past and present been gutted and messed up?”
“Do you know any woman litterateurs?”
Mahmuda knows me.
“Well, there are a few, why do you ask?” She says.
“I want to ask her to write my biography. I wanted to write it myself but even after all my efforts, I simply cannot put down the right words though I can think well enough.”
“In this case, what is the problem if the writer is a male?”
“You don’t understand Mahmuda… after I got pregnant, I was so scared that the child will be born with my deformity, I stayed up at night in nerve-wracking anxiety that I will give birth to some animal. So… when the doctor pulled it out, I shut my eyes in dead fright. Then, when finally I glanced at the baby, bright like the sunshine, lying in the tray with the scissors still tied to her cut umbilical cord, I was overjoyed. She had two equal legs. Immediately afterward, I was engulfed by mixed feelings… this child was not mine. The doctor must have swapped it. My child was not supposed to be normal. The belief was rooted so deep that it took me a long time to accept her with motherly love. Can any male writer ever understand this?”
Mahmuda turns somber.
“What is this smell though? Why does it seem so familiar?”
“It happens at times. Some people look so familiar but it comes to light that the person is from Kolkata, another country altogether, and is visiting Bangladesh for the first time.”
“This had happened to my husband too on our wedding night.”
“Your face seems so familiar,” he had said.
“It has to be. We have at least one thing in common, we are both human beings. Maybe, this is our human nature getting drawn to what seems known.”
“I know a few female writers but they are conservative. Their works are quite stagnant, focusing mostly on petty concerns of abusive mothers-in-law, extramarital affairs, uncaring children, and so on. They have their reasons, I am sure. They might feel uncomfortable writing about all these complications—the pregnancy, the growing fetus, and the birth of the baby. That day, one of my writer-friends said that her husband got mad at her when she showed him a story on a woman’s adultery before sending it out for publication. The husband has become suspicious of the wife since.”
I feel drowsy.
Is my body losing grip?
Colorful fishes swim, and I stare. Suddenly, I whisper, “Do you know someone who can procure a Jinn amulet for me?”
Mahmuda is taken aback.
“You believe in all this?”
“Every now and then, there is a strange knock on my door. I am sure it’s a Jinn. I haven’t told this to my daughter, she will laugh it away. But, you know that Jinns surround the deformed frequently?”
“Amazing! You are out of your mind now.”
“Says the one who prays five times a day.” I get agitated. “Islam accepts the existence of jinns, does it not?”
Returning home, I lay down in bed. I do have a good life. So many people fight to make ends meet, they lack homes, they starve… I need not worry about money. If my father wouldn’t have left this house, I would have to earn using this deformed leg. I sigh thinking of my girl, who I wanted to raise as an all-squarer. How desperate I had once been about teaching her to sing.
“What’s so different about that,” she had said, giving me back my words.
“So… will you remain like this all your life, just another girl?”
“Then, should I learn to walk with my hands? That’ll be unique!” she says…
Now she talks about all sorts of things with Pintu. Was it my fault then? Was it a mistake to raise her as informed? But… some of her friends, whose parents shy away from talking about these things seem far worse. Hearing about them, my veins begin to throb. Some of them have had sex already at this age.
My daughter is just talking freely. Why do I take it so seriously? She never keeps things from me, what else could I ask for?
She couldn’t be someone different.
A sigh rises like smoke, tearing my heart apart.
I wanted to look at myself anew. The way they turn their necks to look at the famous, they looked at me too since birth… but their gazes shrank and crumpled me. Some laughed, Ah! But despite all that, I go on. The more I walk, the more I feel the pain, and the more stubborn I become, and look for ways to grow and bloom. What can I do so that this deformity becomes ideal?
Once, I considered cleaving the legs to equal sizes and felt terribly heartbroken. I was obsessed with cutting them in two till I pushed all that fatal thoughts aside and ordered myself a pair of wooden shoes. One of them had an extra heel while the other one didn’t. I dragged myself in it and heard a boy mock, “How did that hobble go away?” People can get really cruel in such cases. I threw away my shoes and went back to being my original self.
As I am thinking all this, I feel a tingling in my body, there is someone pacing outside the mosquito net. And then, there is the knock.
Am I lying? For a long time, I cannot even recognize myself. What if these were my footsteps? Who scares me like this? Why is there endless knocking on the door?
I know who this is. I feel its breath in the corridor as I walk to my daughter. I throw myself at her.
“I am scared!”
She runs her finger through my hair. “I feel bad for you. You are lonely.”
She takes a long pause and says, “You should have married again.”
“What would have happened to you then?”
“What else, I would have called that man baba”
“You are saying this because I didn’t. If I did, reality would be different. You would have punished me in other ways.”
“You don’t know me.”
“Don’t I? Until recently, you would be crying to take me to your friends’ gatherings, you used to say, ‘limp, or broken, you are my mother, my pride.’ Now you say, ‘you’ll be uncomfortable and sick among so many people, you don’t have to come’.”
“It’s not like that,” she hesitates, “my friends say that you keep a constant vigilance on me.”
“I know your world is expanding… I don’t mind that at all. Your mother tagging along with her odd gait spoils your beauty there.”
“Haven’t you changed a lot too, mother?”
I could empathize with my mother’s pain after many years.
“Why didn’t you die in my womb?”
Because of such abuses she hurled at me, I have always taken her as my enemy. But then, the expression of pain is different in each.
She looked for me in the end but I never showed up. Now I know it. A child belongs to the mother for a certain time without any reason. How impossibly stubborn I was!
Once, I was such an unbearable liability to my mother. She could never get rid of me, so she used me to dump all her frustrations. This is why even the little speck of individualism in my daughter scares me. I whimper, thinking of my mother’s inhuman suffering.
Sitting on the rattan chair on the balcony, I keep gazing out. This part of the city is yet to get crowded. The avenue ahead, those palm trees soothe me. A young man comes to stand on the balcony of the house on the right. He looks at me strangely. I had never seen him before. Do I look otherworldly while swinging between the light and shadow? I curl into myself but realize that he is not able to see my legs. I feel a cyclone in my nerves. I think, even if he stood there forever, I would never get up and walk before him to go inside.
My daughter comes to the balcony, and I freeze. She sits on the floor spreading her legs. Her hands look green with henna. “Ma, look how shameless he is!”
I think of writing, often. I don’t have the skill of painting in me, nor do I possess a melodious voice. I know Bengali and I can try to articulate my feelings through my writing. Most of my thoughts after much meandering take on the same theme though: distortion, deformity. I think of a story… a man took away his newborn child from his wife as the baby did not have hands. As he ran through the green paddies to the river to throw the child into it, he stumbled and fell. The baby cried out from the ground, “Can’t you find me, Baba? I am right here, in the paddy field.”
Damn! Is this even a story?
I tell my next-door neighbor… “Sister, I really want to write.”
“Same here,” she says.
“My life is so eventful, only if I could concoct the right words with pen and paper!”
So, if such an ordinary woman has the same aspiration… I must discard it right away. I tell my daughter, “Only if I could find myself within you… You have time, your life has just begun.”
Her neck gets tense. “Am I short of anything?”
“You are not bad in studies, but most do that. You will do decently in the finals of SSC, but that’s all I see…”
“You got married after your matriculation,” she said, “I plan to complete my Master’s and get a good job. Why do you underestimate me?”
I hold my breath, “I did not want it that way… I did go to college. But the boys teased me so much on the very first day, I could not go back to that ever again.”
She showed her proper legs. “You could have been happy for these at least.”
Evening has descended in each room, my daughter tiptoes out to get the door to the stairs. I stand behind the wall like a ghost. Someone was coming up. The odor of the mosquito coil was unbearable! I wrinkle my nose. I can hear her, “I know, it’s you. You are the one who knocks and sneaks. But why on earth? Shall I report you to my mother?”
Someone chuckles. I get very still.
“Don’t you even sleep at night, you crazy ass,” she goes on.
The male voice replies, “I’ll do it anyway and break the asshole Pintu’s legs.”
This way, one day foists to another and stretches for hours. I fold under the weight of the cold.
One day, I get thrilled as I discover the meaning of another dream in the book of dreams. The dream, when it comes, rids people of deadly diseases. I dreamt it the previous night. I get all sweaty, learning its meaning during the day. I’ll need no more unique qualities in this lifetime. I want to stand tall on both of my legs on the ground. I try to strengthen my belief that I will certainly reap the benefits of that dream one day. I go on counting the hours… how and when would that leg get longer!
“What’s with the henna on your toenails?” I hear Pintu in the outer room.
“Your feet are beautiful anyways.”
“You know… my mother is jealous of me.” My daughter whispers.
At The Antonym, we believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine: