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Cold Tea— Shaheen Akhtar

Jul 24, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Bengali by Rituparna Mukherjee

The bus lurched to a halt under the darkness of the aerial roots of the banyan tree.

The inside of the bus, packed full of passengers, choking in the heat and humidity, reeked of sweat and bidis. Her seat being in the aisle, she couldn’t see what was outside. Rosie perceived it was raining by the steady pattering on the roof of the bus, interspersed with sudden gusts of wind.

As soon as she stepped off the bus, Rosie felt the moist air on her face. The long and scaly aerial roots of the banyan shook forcefully in the wind. Was the boy hiding in the hollow of the tree like a squirrel? Perhaps, having a blissful nap. He ran towards the moving bus with a basket of cut cucumbers on his head. He tried his best to get hold of the bus door. Had it not been raining, perhaps the conductor-chap would have shown mercy. What she really desired in a weather like that was hot roasted chickpeas, peanuts, or at least jhalmuri-chanachur. It was not the weather for cucumbers, Rosie thought while climbing onto the rickshaw, but she could have left the boy with five takas.

It was sweltering in the afternoon when, huffing for breath, Rosie was finally able to get to the local bus. She was sweating profusely. After it started raining, the boy must not have been able to sell the cucumbers. Mejo Chowdhury had mentioned once that the people of this area were really poor. Year after year, the river Padma broke its banks, leaving the people in worsening penury with every passing year. That is why it was becoming essential to strengthen the security at the Chowdhury Dairy-Poultry-Fishery. He was wary of the thieves robbing him of his profits– after all, the business had been built on a bank loan. He was already cutting hefty losses.

There was a time when his frustrated rants would melt her like wax, Rosie thought despondently while watching the vehicle ahead spew dark clouds of exhaust. The boy had finally managed to secure his feet on the foothold by jumping onto the motorized vehicle ahead. He was probably returning home, forsaking all hopes of sales for that day. Rosie was on her way to answering Mejo Chowdhury’s invitation to the Chowdhury Dairy-Poultry-Fishery. However, the invitation was stale, over three months old. His voice over the telephone was also unusually tepid, his invitation a mere formality. Although he himself never opted for the ramshackle local bus as a mode of transport, he had instructed Rosie to come along that way, peremptorily guiding her with a few landmarks, like a disinterested guardian, in a tone that implied the chore of inviting an unwelcome guest, fifteen or sixteen years younger to him. Rosie’s initial excitement over this invitation had mellowed down substantially. She saw the muddy road stretch ahead for two more miles.

As Rosie’s rickshaw left the highway and descended on the dirt road, she saw the young boy’s vehicle turning unsteadily along the muddy road ahead, leaving clouds of smoke behind. Shallow engines undoubtedly have muscle. Even when the vehicle disappeared behind the other houses, its loud sound lashed at her heart. But she wasn’t thinking about the ill effects of the loud noise. She had more significant things to worry about. Such inclement weather. An unknown place. Couldn’t Mejo Chowdhury have come to the bus stand? If it wasn’t possible for him, he should have at least sent his driver. It was not as if Rosie didn’t know the driver. He would often drive the jeep to escort her to the hostel when it would get late at Mejo Chowdhury’s old Dhaka residence, although the gesture wasn’t necessary. She was as comfortable in the streets of Dhaka at night as fish in water.

The noise of the shallow engine died away and was replaced by the sound of the river tearing its bank: Jhup Jhup. Or was it her mind playing tricks? She couldn’t spot an inch of a river nearby. Fields of freshly-sown paddy lay ahead, stretched till the horizon, reflecting green light, the color of young banana leaves. She spotted a sliver of purple smoke at a distance, possibly preparations for dinner. But it was just five-thirty by the watch! Was Chowdhury ready to see Rosie in the light of day? Maybe he would admit her stealthily by the backdoor. She who had been the residential teacher of a girls’ college in Dhaka for ages, the guardian of around fifty girls, and a superintendent. Rosie cast a sidelong glance at her paisley print three-piece and thought: it wasn’t branded on the skin that she was a teacher. Trimmed hair grazed her forehead, filled with heat rash. She turned her head and brought her long braid forward. Due to her appearance, the rickshaw puller addressed her not as Khala but as Aapa when she was bargaining the fare. The very thought that Mejo Chowdhury usually preferred her in a saree repulsed her.

By the time the rickshaw stopped at the fence of crotons, the green of the paddy fields was wiped out. The yellow speckles of the croton leaves seemed like leukoderma spots. When Mejo Chowdhury, clad in a white lungi and loose vest, with even whiter hair, called her furtively from the high bank of the pond, Rosie could not understand why she would have to cross the muddy path to the corner of the house instead of the main entrance with the arched shade of the campanula flowers. She had expected to find him in shorts and an undershirt, probably even in dyed hair like how he used to be in those early days… He had evidently no intention of hiding his real age because she had insisted on visiting. Even his voice was unexpectedly harsh, unreasonably scolding the man feeding the fish in shallow waters.

What she had anticipated came to pass. Mejo Chowdhury led her in through the back door, up the stairs, sans light, replete with the smell of cow urine. There was probably a cow farm nearby. She breathed a sigh of relief after reaching the terrace.

“Freshen up, Madam. I’ll send for some tea.”

Was this Mejo Chowdhury’s voice? He suddenly addressed her formally and went down the stairs. A woman, who looked like a maid, slipped out from behind a pillar in the terrace, switched on the lights of the adjoining room, and took her bag from her hand.

There were three similar rooms side by side, in front of which lay a huge terrace bounded on all sides by a wooden railing. In the middle of the terrace, underneath a round shade, was placed a rattan table and chairs, arrangements for drinking tea. Rosie, swinging in a rocking chair, wondered at the beauty of the village in the rains. Ordinary climbers and creepers smile after a shower. She saw the greenish sky reflected in the pond. She stood up and spotted a sliver of the Padma River gleaming like silverware.

“How far is the river from here?” she asked the woman carrying the tea tray.

It seemed that she had not heard what was said, or even if she had, she probably didn’t have any intention of answering. In the light of the kerosene lamp, the woman looked quite young. She had a gold nath. When her veil slid from her head, a plastic flower on her hair bun could be seen. Rosie had to request the girl to remove the lamp thrice. Could she actually not hear? When she gestured with her fingers, the deaf and mute girl made an inarticulate sound and moved away with the lamp.

Rosie sipped the tea and wondered why she couldn’t remember things properly these days. Mejo Chowdhury had told her that all the servants in that house were men. When a young widow had created trouble, he had to make such arrangements in his house. Chowdhury had slipped a few instances of the widow’s service even in their most intimate moments. They weren’t as commonplace as taking off a sock. The widow’s tongue was heavy with a world of hunger. But it was also foolishness to think that she would spend her life spitting and gurgling out the dense, sticky substance in the basin. The source of the problem apparently lay in that. The widow had falsely threatened that she would consult the village arbitrators to mediate a marriage. She had calmed down only after usurping the papers of the pond along with a small cottage.

Did Reshma know of this? It was probably around that time that Reshma tried to arrange Rosie’s marriage with Mejo Chowdhury.

Rosie had intensely disliked Chowdhury when she met him for the first time at her friend Reshma’s place.

“Before commenting on his age, look at yourself, Rosie,” Reshma had said.

Although unhappy about Reshma’s harsh words, she had returned to the hostel in Chowdhury’s jeep. He hadn’t talked much that day, probably because he was driving or, perhaps, he could gauge Rosie’s feelings. He was clever enough to refrain from showing off his wealth, which is why he had stood unpretentiously at the hostel gate with a bunch of ginger lilies on her birthday. The hostel mess was closed for the Ramadan holidays. So, when he invited her for dinner, she immediately agreed. Although he frequently asserted himself as a mere peasant, Rosie was surprised by his expertise with the cutlery, his etiquette, and fluency in the English language. As if a colonial landlord had suddenly appeared at the turn of the century. This idea was further solidified after she visited his home in Old Dhaka where the hibiscus bloomed. From Shakespeare to Balzac, Leo Tolstoy, and even D.H. Lawrence, all the classics were collected in the glass almirah. The walls too were adorned with a few impressionist prints– as if time had taken a halt there. Despite this, his business was of the pedestrian hybrid fish-chicken-beef. Why?

“Haven’t you comprehended it yet? It’s a business that takes care of the necessities.”

She observed for the first time at the dining table that his smile resembled a joker’s when he described his business that way. Such lavish arrangements to feed just one stomach? Rosie felt she lived quite well with her meager income from her private college teaching. He didn’t seem very generous with his money or very luxurious in his tastes. The floor lay covered in a worn carpet. The bookshelves and almirahs were termite-ridden. He drove a model of Jeep from pre-Bangladesh times. During his visits to Dhaka, his food came from his younger brother’s kitchen. Rosie had also eaten there one day. There was a huge dining table with around eight chairs in the hallway on the second floor. There were only the two of them at the table: Mejo Chowdhury and Rosie. The only housewife, his brother’s wife, hadn’t sat at the table to eat with her elder brother-in-law. Immersing her buttery soft body in an easy chair at a distance, she went on knitting tablemats with crochet needles. There was a solitary parrot in a hanging cage above her head.

Rosie put down her tea cup and fiddled with the sugar-free biscuits. She wondered if that was all for dinner. She grew restless at the constant drone of the beetle and the frogs and paced around the terrace. The deaf and mute girl came for a round once. Chowdhury arrived thereafter. Had Rosie been blinded by her rage for so long? She saw the light of the cloudless moon bathe the terrace, the air redolent with the perfume of jasmine and Kamini flowers. Was this a mirage? Or did the moon not appear, the flowers not bloom without Chowdhury’s permission in this part of the land? If the frogs stop calling, perhaps the birds would also break into a song in his welcome. When Rosie taunted him about this, Chowdhury bellowed with clownish laughter, saying, “Ah, crazy girl!”

Did Rosie like the man? Although she hadn’t been serious about Reshma’s proposal, which of Chowdhury’s desires had she really neglected in the last year? Instead, she had created opportunities for him to disregard her. She wasn’t really good at the game.

Recently, Reshma had also changed her tune: “Don’t get too involved. The man doesn’t seem too trustworthy.”

How would Reshma react if she came to know that she was in Chowdhury’s villa, pouring cold tea for him in ceramic cups, handing him a plate of biscuits!

“Oh, how tasteless,” Chowdhury exclaimed, making the ugliest face. “Would anyone but an enemy serve cold tea?” 

The moment he uttered those words, Rosie saw a tray with a bottle, glass, and ice cubes brought to them. Then the two of them engaged in a gentle mock argument:

“Just one glass!”
“This is not your city, Madam.”
“No, this is a terrace.”
“Okay, okay.”

Chowdhury gestured to Jyotsna, the deaf and mute girl, to bring another glass. She brought two glasses and kept them on the table with a loud thud. Perhaps Chowdhury’s fault lay in asking her to fetch one glass. Or possibly she wanted frothy beer instead of the regular whiskey. Or maybe, because Rosie wanted to have whiskey, the girl was thinking that she could join in. After all, she was as much a woman as herself. Nursing these thoughts, Rosie began to get ready to watch the entertainment unfold. Although Chowdhury instructed her to bring some chaat, the girl stood by stubbornly. Meanwhile, the ice melted steadily. Would Rosie have to forego the idea of drinking whiskey?

The entertainment wouldn’t be as much fun then. The curtains had just risen. She had seen that fish swim the superficial waters of the city. She had come here, undertaking the tiresome bus journey, to see him navigate the deep waters of his home in the village.

“Oh, what nonsense,” Chowdhury poured one peg each in the two glasses.

“Will Jyotsna drink?”

“Honest friends bring heaven closer, and the dishonest ones bring hell,” Chowdhury smiled a little.

Whose company was the dishonest one? Rosie had started drinking for the first time in her life with Chowdhury. Sometimes she drank with him at his Old Dhaka residence and returned to the hostel chewing fennel. Chowdhury wasn’t fond of people who could argue with the right points. Wasn’t fond of women running their mouths. Perhaps that is why he had arranged for a deaf and mute girl. Rosie was caught because she was too outspoken. Why did she have to describe his Joker-like smile or his mummy-like face? Chowdhury had provoked her into drinking neat whiskey that day.

Rosie lifted the glass carefully.

Jyotsna’s eyes roamed all over her face like a flashlight and rested on the glass in her hand. She drank it all in one gulp and left, and returned with a tray laden with food.

Rosie marveled at how jealous she was secretly! She had left her with tea and a few biscuits and now brought out a spread just of fish – fried, barbecued, and steamed.

The night progressed with the three of them enjoying the fish, like content cats. There wasn’t, however, much talk. Three months ago, Rosie would have spoken volumes. Their relationship had turned sour before it could set properly. Why had it– Rosie had wanted to know on the telephone. Chowdhury had answered her question by disconnecting her call repeatedly. Ultimately, she had resignedly asked in a letter if they could at least keep their friendship. She had received a conditional affirmative, albeit a little delayed. No one would wait for Rosie at the hostel gate anymore and impatiently glance at their wristwatch. The condition also deemed it impossible to have dinner at one of those restaurants where they would sit, curtains pulled close, once or twice a month. But why did it seem unacceptable for her to be denied entrance to the house where the hibiscus bloomed, where the sole housewife sank her butter-soft body in an easy chair and wove tablemats? She even missed the lonely parrot in the hanging cage on the terrace of that house. She probably would have made peace with the situation but she found the taunts of the hostel girls increasingly unbearable. They would pass by her room on their way to the dining room and would mockingly call out– the bird has fled! She would also not get the previous respect when she went for room visits. A few of them would forget to put their feet down from the study table and would play the cassettes loudly in front of her. One day, while glancing at the palm tree outside her window, she heard an honors student singing, “Where have you gone, oh bhramar? My entire body burns in separation from Lord Krishna, oh where have you gone,bhramar?” followed by peals of collective laughter. Her entire body trembled in anger. Would she lose the post of the superintendent because of this wretched fellow!

“Since when has Jyotsna been here?” Looking at Chowdhury’s eyes, Rosie questioned him.

What did she have to lose? What nonsense was going on with a deaf and mute girl! Rosie had to repeat the question, although she was clear the first time.

“Jyotsna who?” Chowdhury seemed to be waking up from a stupor, and added in a gruff voice, “When the moon rises in the sky”.

The Black Label finally cast its effect. Rosie felt her body swim as she sat in the chair. She felt as if there were many moons wandering the night sky. She saw the man’s mummy-like face in the smoky shade of the night sky. The girl sat on the wood railing and seemed to be watching her. Rosie would never have her previous dignity back at the hostel. The girls would eventually get rid of her. Rosie wanted to say something to that effect. But the words stuck to her tongue and didn’t find their way out. Thinking it was water, Rosie drank a large shot of whiskey in one gulp. It burned her throat and chest. Jyotsna leaped when the moon hid behind the clouds. She crossed the plates and bowls strewn carelessly and like a cat pawed at Chowdhury’s glass from time to time, probably because she didn’t want Chowdhury to drink anymore. The girl herself had gulped four or five pegs. She treaded unsteadily around Chowdhury, groaning like an infant in a state of half-sleep and breaking into uncouth bare smiles. She didn’t acknowledge Rosie’s presence. Chowdhury seemed to be enjoying the situation. Did this drama transpire every day? Or had it been orchestrated for her benefit alone?

Rosie stumbled like a beaten dog towards her room.

Rosie had bad dreams. She woke up with a start at the sound of something heavy falling to the ground. Did the noise come from Chowdhury’s room? The two rooms shared a common toilet. She heard the deaf and mute girl whining, or was it a sound of affection? Rosie tried to lift her heavy head from her pillow and thought perhaps she shouldn’t have drunk so much. The veins in her forehead throbbed. Her head felt as heavy as molten metal. She wobbled her way to the bathroom and wondered if Jyotsna was sitting inside, the door bolted!

Rosie walked barefoot to the terrace. Sitting in the easy-chair, she felt her heart fill with poison and disgust for Chowdhury. Having fun with a deaf and mute girl through the night! He would have to pay for that. He would run bankrupt one day paying for his antics and his preference for fun. Finishing a bottle of Black Label every night wasn’t a small feat! There was also a lot of food waste. She recalled times when just the amount of food waste on Chowdhury’s table would have filled the stomachs of all her family members. After her father’s death, her younger brother sold books at the station. He started selling cut cucumbers and pineapples in railway compartments because the books barely sold. He had returned home one rainy day, crying, because he was unable to sell anything. That night, all of them chewed on a tub of stale and sour cucumbers, rubbed with salt and chili powder, for dinner. All of them used to really hate the monsoon due to this reason. Rosie had cleared the university examinations easily due to tuition classes and a good result. She had taken on the mantle of her family thereafter and didn’t realize when she had crossed the age of thirty, fielding her family’s responsibilities. By the time her three younger siblings had settled down financially, crow’s feet spread around her eyes, her skin lost its elasticity, her hair its luster. Rosie went on purchasing creams, oils, and lotions from the supermarket. When she met Reshma after ages, she recognized her easily. Reshma was as effervescent, beautiful, and boisterous as ever. Reshma didn’t have any airs even though she was the wife of a rich businessman. Reshma had pressed Rosie to accompany her to Banani’s place in her red Toyota Corolla. Ensconced in Reshma’s sofa in the living room, Rosie had thought that time hadn’t marred their friendship. The bond which let her borrow class notes and copy them without much thought was still intact. She felt that if she could conduct herself according to Reshma’s advice, she wouldn’t be cheated of all joys in life.

With Chowdhury asleep, Rosie climbed up the ladder to the water tank on the terrace. She saw Chowdhury’s empire, girded with barbed wires- his pond, garden, duck-chicken-cow shed, and fields of grain. Reshma used to often say in those early days of arranging a probable marriage with Chowdhury that his property was as close to heaven as it got. If she went there once, she would want to spend the rest of her life there.

Jyotsna couldn’t be spotted anywhere during the day. A small plot of land near the pond was laid with stone chips, probably used for laying fish traps. There was a long concrete slab built for sitting in that area. Rosie rubbed her muddy sandals in the grass and sat there. She watched a shoal of fish moving around in the muddy waters of the pond for some time. She found the scene quite appealing, especially thinking about the profit of the business. Getting up from her seat, Rosie wistfully recalled her home in the village where, next to the square pond, were bushes of water spinach all around and shoals of flame-colored young fish would roam around the mother mudfish.

Apparently, the vegetables grown on Chowdhury’s farm were organic. Reshma had mentioned that the vegetables were not grown to be sold. How much could Chowdhury consume alone? Rosie had once seen in wonder the variety of vegetables delivered to Reshma’s house in a pick-up van. They tasted really good as well.

Rosie soon entered a beautiful bower to avoid the torrential rain. Who was this magic garden meant for? The few cement seats were moss-covered. The neglected garden had thrived at the welcome rain. She spotted dandelions, glory lilies, and three or four varieties of cherry trees. There was an abundance of local flowers. The perfumes from these flowering trees intensified as the night progressed and spread all over the terrace where Chowdhury’s sick and distasteful desires are appeased with the help of alcohol and women. No one would imagine his night-time debauchery seeing him in daylight. Perhaps Reshma, the wife of a rich businessman, whose lives were routinely tempered with visits to the nightclubs and cocktail parties, was not unaware of these hidden sexual trysts. The members in Rosie’s staff room gossiped about their English teacher as well because she was frequently absent from the Sunday morning classes. When she would arrive in the afternoon, her hangover would still accompany her. However, irrespective of her wealth and social status, she taught well. This life was not for all– those who could live it, could. Rosie let out a sigh and listened to the sound of rain falling on the plants. The atmosphere was enchanting. Chowdhury’s sins could be forgiven just for constructing such a beautiful garden.

“Do you like the garden?” She came face to face with Chowdhury one day while leaving the garden.

“You cannot blame me if a snake bites you,” he said and led her back into the garden through a moss-covered, slippery path.

The man didn’t know how to think small. He said that he would hire contractors to construct a fountain in the middle of the garden after the monsoons. He would keep imported fish in the fountain and blue lotuses.

“What’s bad in local water lilies that look so beautiful in the fall?” As soon as she had blurted these words, Rosie perceived that she was already a part of Chowdhury’s master plan.

She didn’t hesitate to send sick-leave applications to her principal. When Chowdhury had typed the application, she signed it immediately. Sitting on the terrace at night, Rosie thought that Chowdhury had needed an audience to witness his wealth and his terrifying, loathsome self and that she had merely filled up that empty position. That was why she was being served so well.

A gardener arrived the very next day. His skill in using gardening tools proved his expertise. He liked a pruned and organized garden. Rosie supervised the gardener the entire afternoon so that she could retain some of the untamed nature of the garden. She helped him with the weeding. He had started working for Chowdhury in this garden itself. However, he had been fired around a year back. Rosie didn’t want to know the reason. She listened to his troubles attentively. He had lost his land, house, and property due to the flooding of the Padma and had been reduced to begging in the streets. He had thereafter gone on to become a contractual fighter for Chowdhury’s distant relative. When he had injured his head in a fight and lay senseless, Chowdhury had borne all his medical costs. His hands and feet would shake even after recovery. Chowdhury had given him the job of a gardener because it required less physical exertion. Nobody should call him a namak haram, the ones who did would be punished by the gods.

Rosie trembled. She didn’t expect to see Jyotsna on the terrace at that hour. She was sun-drying her wet hair and reading Anna Karenina.  She still couldn’t believe that Chowdhury had Leo. She had found the book dull after Anna’s death and had quit three years back. She had started reading the rest of the novel, taking the book from Chowdhury’s book rack.

Was he a human or an animal? Jyotsna’s shoulder and back had black marks from what looked like marks from a whip. When she saw Jyotsna remove the clothes from her chest, Rosie didn’t prevent her or move away. Did she feel pity for the deaf and mute girl? Although she didn’t want to admit it to herself, the sudden heaviness of her throat might have been an expression of some hidden joy. She ardently wanted an audience with Chowdhury at night, on the terrace, without Jyotsna. So, that evening, Jyotsna’s absence from the terrace, where she usually sat like a toad in the tenements, filled Rosie with a wave of happiness. She poured a touch of whiskey into Chowdhury’s glass and placed ice in them with the tongs. Somewhere, a night bird called out, shrill. A little later, an eagle called out which spooked her in her place. Choudhury sat in the swing and shook his legs. He went and switched off the light in the room because it disturbed his eyes. Rosie saw his square face in the darkness while squeezing lime juice on the fried fish.

Rosie took small sips of the cold spirit slowly, relishing the fish fry alone. The intensity of her happiness seemed to equal Chowdhury’s gloom. Was he planning to hit the deaf and mute girl again? How had the girl angered him? Whatever the reason, Rosie was still happy. If he went down and knocked at the girl’s door then, she would definitely not have replied. She would bite him if he were to force her to come. He had to learn a lesson.

Rosie had fallen asleep with the copy of Anna Karenina on her chest. She awoke with the sound of someone shouting, or was it the sound of a thunderclap? She switched off the light and tiptoed to the door. She returned and opened the bolt of the toilet door. Both the doors were locked from the outside. It had started raining torrentially with strong gusts of wind. Rosie felt a strange alarm grip her trembling body as she shut the window. Did people get murdered on nights like these?

“How would it be if Chowdhury were to participate in the forthcoming election? What would be his election logo – fish, chicken, or cow?” The next day the gardener’s son was working with him in the garden. She was taken aback to see the boy, the cucumber-seller at the bus stand, there. He had stopped selling cucumbers because his father had started working again. He planned to start going to school again from the new session. Rosie felt comforted that somehow her love for the garden had prevented this young boy from child labor. She offered him tea and salted biscuits in the evening. As the gardener organized his tools and went to the pond to wash his hands and feet, the young boy, picking up from where he had left off, exclaimed excitedly, “Cow! His logo should be a cow!” The boy evidently liked the fat and soft Australian cows from Chowdhury’s farm. They gave buckets and buckets of frothy milk. Making a sound with his tongue, the boy said, “Shiny and fatty cows are really enjoyable to eat.”

What was the relation between fat cows and an election win? Starving beings, human or animal, always love plump and juicy things to eat. Rosie recalled never feeling this way about the image of the colorful cow on the condensed milk bottle. She felt revolted every time she passed Chowdhury’s cow farm. She found the local cows smaller, cuter, and more streamlined. She found them less dirty. But the gardener’s son refused to accept the local cows as the election logo as if that would kill Chowdhury’s campaign quickly.

When the father-son left, Rosie sat in the garden, in the passing light of the evening, a cup of tea in hand. She found planting fruit and flower seeds in the garden much more satisfying than teaching. If Chowdhury were to hear her say this, he would probably plan an entire nursery there. Why did she, a girl from a poor family, have dreams of wealth? Rosie sat up straight– on what hope was she building those dreams? She crossed the green lawn slowly, sandals in her hand. Chowdhury was masquerading and she had just two weeks there. She had seen him lift the deaf and mute girl over his head and thrash her to the ground. What might have happened to the girl? The last time Rosie had seen her, she was sitting in the kitchen, her hand on a plate of fermented rice, looking sadly at the Taro bush. Rosie couldn’t move ahead to the kitchen as the small courtyard was strewn with chicken feathers, fish scales, and rotting vegetable parts. She had left, ignoring the calls of the cook’s wife, the previous day. That day, however, she herself moved away from that place on her way to the kitchen. Chowdhury was discussing something with the cook. She saw their shadows moving from behind the long leaves of the Taro plant. The house was unusually quiet. Even the air seemed to be whispering ominously. For no reason, her thin body felt heavy as she climbed up the stairs.

When Chowdhury proposed marriage later that night, Rosie’s weight-laden body felt as light as a wild creeper. She would finally be able to leave her spinster troubles behind. She would also be able to regain her erstwhile dignity at the hostel. She breathed a silent prayer of gratitude for Chowdhury in her heart of hearts. She hadn’t really known the man when Reshma had tried to arrange her marriage about a year ago. She had also not seen his wealth and property. Chowdhury was not inebriated by alcohol but seemed drunk in delight at the prospect of marriage. He sat her down in the swing and spoke to her at length. What would lonely people do at night but drink? But Rosie too would have to forego that bad habit. They would soon be a family. So much work ahead! Chowdhury had long expressed a desire to construct a women’s college in his mother’s name. He hadn’t been able to accomplish this project due to a lack of reliable people. Rosie would have to shoulder that responsibility. When Rosie was getting ready to turn in for the night after a good night kiss on the cheeks, she added the image of a college in her mind along with the nursery that she had planned earlier and herself as the principal of the college.

Rosie was planning to go to the garden the next morning to make a bouquet of flowers. But when she lifted the curtains of the window, she was very surprised. She found Chowdhury working among stacks of paper kept on the rattan table. He didn’t even glance at her when she walked down the stairs in a lime green saree. If he ignored her immediately after the proposal, how would they spend the rest of their days! His reaction to receiving a bouquet of flowers with some fragrant morning tea remained to be seen. He was after all a human, not a stone!

Downstairs, Rosie saw the stony visage of the cook’s wife. She was carrying a large pile of dirty laundry to wash at the pond. Being childless, she had wanted to keep her only niece Jyotsna near her by employing her in Chowdhury’s service. Collecting flowers in the garden, Rosie wondered with misgivings in her heart, was the deaf and mute girl really sick? Whose dirty rags was the cook’s wife carrying?

“I am seriously ill-fated,” Rosie thought while cutting a branch of gardenia buds. “Would I otherwise have taken pleasure in the pain of a poor deaf and mute girl?”

Rosie’s thought was very insignificant compared to the actual incident. What a terrible incident it was!

When Rosie heard about Jyotsna taking poison, she was daydreaming about her marriage. She had hung her wet clothes to dry on the terrace. After Chowdhury had left for some important work, she stood there, sun-drying and combing her hair. She also thought of putting a bunch of Ixora flowers in her hair bun. She was hoping that the mute girl would be saved because she had been taken to the hospital. What a stubborn girl! Why would this lowly girl build castles in the air? How could Chowdhury possibly marry someone who was deaf, mute, and illiterate!

Chowdhury did not return at night. The news of Jyotsna’s death arrived. The cook’s wife mourned her niece loudly despite her husband’s instructions to be quiet. Although they turned away their faces, Rosie was taken aback at what she heard them say. The girl had swallowed poison the previous evening. Rosie matched the time to the moment she was returning from the garden, the moment she had turned away from the kitchen when she had seen Chowdhury arguing with the cook. They had been waiting for darkness to settle. Chowdhury had kept her busy on the terrace at night with the marriage proposal, while Jyotsna was being taken to the hospital. Rosie had these thoughts, years later, when in retrospect she didn’t feel any attachment to Chowdhury.

That night was really horrifying. Rosie did not know then that Chowdhury had gone to Dhaka to fake the postmortem report for Jyotsna’s death. He wasn’t bothered about the poison in her stomach. The fresh bruises could not be hidden if the doctor gave an accurate report. Rosie paced the terrace and thought that even a simple suicide had its own hassles. She herself had faced a storm of troubles two years back when one of the girls in the hostel had taken sleeping pills. After all, she was the superintendent. She was probably considered to have provoked the suicide! If Chowdhury was the primary culprit in this mishap, she was the secondary. Even if no one would bother to call the police for a helpless, poor girl, the law would certainly take its course. She lay trembling in fear through the night. She drifted off to sleep when the cries of the cook’s wife had subsided. She was startled awake when the gardener’s son knocked at her door softly at the crack of dawn.

It was strange how people helped in the oddest of hours! In this desperate hour of need, Rosie found herself supported by the gardener and his son, people with whom she had companionably worked in the garden for a few days, plowing the soil, and sowing plants. The news of Jyotsna’s death had spread in the village and the people there mostly blamed Rosie for the incident. Chowdhury was a part of the village, a wealthy individual who helped out the people in need. Who was the woman for whom the poor girl had taken her life? Rosie thought to herself– would she be able to prove herself entirely blameless?

She had packed her bags the previous night. The gardener brought a rickshaw van, hidden in the croton bushes. When they reached the bus stand, the first streaks of light had started spreading in the sky.

Rosie had somehow escaped, but what happened to Chowdhury? After clinging to her unmade bed for two whole days, Chowdhury’s proposal of marriage perturbed her again. His phone was switched off. It was evening when she stepped into Reshma’s house from her CNG. Her two children had just returned from school and Reshma was busy feeding them. Sitting in the living room, Rosie wondered if the windows and doors to that room always remained bolted. The stale smell of incense wafted through the room, like that in a morgue. Sunlight too could not enter the room through the heavy and dense curtains. She would never have known the pleasures of living in a house where light and air played freely had she not visited Chowdhury’s house.

Reshma turned on the chandelier and sat next to her. “You have come at the most opportune time, my dear.”

Chowdhury had been there just a while back. He had lunch there. Rosie’s heart was aflutter. Had he told Reshma everything? Why was his absence from Reshma’s home a good time for her to visit? Reshma saw anxiety leaving its mark on Rosie’s forehead and said with a smile, “Can you guess why Chowdhury had come here? Let’s see how accurately your brain works!”

Rosie pressed her friend’s hand in impatience.

“What cold hands! Do you still think about him a lot?” Reshma could not stop herself from teasing her.

Rosie scolded her, “Why should I remember him? Is he mine to remember?”

“Good for you! Then I don’t have anything to worry about,” saying which Reshma relayed the information she had on Chowdhury. He was apparently very serious about marriage. He had asked her to search for an appropriate bride for him. Rosie recalled Jyotsna– had the girl been begging for mercy when she had shown her wounded body? She remembered that widow from her village whom she had never seen. Did Reshma know that he was planning marriage in the city, while his village still reeled from his misdeeds? Even if she had known, would it have made a difference? Reshma would probably have blamed the deaf and mute girl, just like she had. Who points a finger at a man if not burned oneself!

When the servant left tea, Reshma added some milk and sugar to the tea and stirred pensively. She was probably absorbed in arranging a suitable marriage for Chowdhury. It was a matter of deep thought indeed– choosing a fitting bride for him.

Rosie put down the cup of cold tea and smiled wistfully– she really had come to that place at a most opportune time. 


Endnotes:

Jhalmuri: a spicy mixture of puffed rice with mustard oil, green chilies, onion, and spices
Chanachur: a mixture of fried lentils, peanuts, chickpeas, and dried spices
Mejo: the second born of a family
Nath: nose ring
Bhramar: Bumblebee, often used to refer to lovers
Namak haram: treacherous


At The Antonymwe 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:

Feminine Pen: Translating Bengali Women Writers


Also Read:

Blindness – Prasanta Kumar Das

Beef Festival – Sheeba E. K.

Samaresh’s Life Force – Indrani Datta

Shaheen Akhtar is a notable Bangladeshi short story writer and novelist. She received the Bangla Academy Literary Award (2015) for her contributions to literature and the Asian LiteraryAward (2020) for her novel TalashTalash was translated into English (as The Search) and published by Zubaan, Delhi, in 2011. Her another novel Beloved Rongomala translated by Shabnam Nadiya will be published in 2022 by Eka, an imprint of Westland Books, a division of Nasadiya technologies private Limited. Her short stories have been published in Words without Border and other prestigious literary magazines. Akhtar’s works have been translated into English, German, and Korean

Rituparna Mukherjee is a faculty of English and Communication Studies at Jogamaya Devi College, Kolkata. She did her MA in English literature and currently pursuing Doctoral degree in Gendered Mobilities in west African and Afro-Diasporic Literature at IIIT Bhubaneswar. Her areas of interest include African and Indian literature and Post-colonial and Feminist theories as well as English Language Teaching, Second Language Acquisition and Communication studies. She works as an ELT consultant, translator and ESL author outside of her work and research schedule.

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