M E H R E E N A H M E D
It was an unforgettable evening. The servants of the House of Chowdhury, had prepared the front-yard as usual for a regular singing session. The family just finished dinner. At dinnertime, the master and the mistress of the House of the Chowdhury, Mr and Mrs. Chowdhury, noticed that their youngest son Ashik’s chair at the table’s far end was unseated. After dinner, the family gathered on the mat in the front-yard, although they expected no singing tonight. There wasn’t going to be one, because the singer, Ashik, had disappeared since last night. An uncanny silence surged in the atmosphere. It pervaded the adjacent gardens, next to the front-yard. Several lanterns placed around the musical instrument, shed light on a forlorn harmonium sitting on the mat without a vocalist. The slightly ajar gate, between the neighbour Raja Hashem’s place, and the House of Chowdhury lent a view to how big this house was in the backdrop of the cottage next door. The House of Chowdhury, housed at least fifty members.
None among those fifty residents, almost no one, had any clues to Ashik’s sudden disappearance, except Lutfun and Sheri. Ashik’s brother, Sheri and his girlfriend, Lutfun had some inkling. They saw something two nights ago. They saw the couple sitting by themselves on the mat after the singing had ended, and the elders had gone to bed. Curiosity goaded the duo to watch. They witnessed a horrific revelation unfold right before their eyes. They saw Ashik pull the neighbour’s wife, Prema Hashem toward himself by the hand. She relented without a hesitation. It was a dark, moonless night. The monsoon had covered all of the stars in the wake of an impending rain. But the lanterns had not been snuffed out just yet. The telltale tall shadows were a sign that the pair was in love. They held each other closely. Then he leaned to kiss her.
Lutfun was rooted to the balcony’s mosaic floor. She blinked a few times, gripping Sheri’s hand. Their gaze transfixed at the looming shadow. She sensed that this was all wrong. How deplorable an act to covet the neighbour’s wife? One, which would also hurt the reputation of the noble House of Chowdhury. They saw the shadows rise to make an egress through the main gate.
The following evening, people sat glumly outside on the mat in silence. Lutfun and Sheri were there too. Somewhat statued on the mat, they realised that this uncomfortable secret of the elopement needed to be told. They wanted to tell the family, but their courage failed them. This could become fodder for gossip amongst the elite for days on end. Ashik’s absence stirred the core of his parents’ heart as it is; their son, a talented singer, had gone missing. The singing disrupted tonight on account of it.
A stormy wind picked up and swept through the front-yard. The elders, Ashik and Sheri’s parents, Mr and Mrs. Chowdhury, quickly rose from the mat and went indoors with all other fifty members in tow, including Lutfun and Sheri. The flowers in the garden trembled in the gust. A few even wilted instantly, and snapped off their dry branches in a matter of a few seconds.
This, a sprawling ancestral home, the House of Chowdhury, was a show of grandeur and landed aristocracy. The Chowdhury family may not have been particularly inclined toward conservatism, but the mistress of the family knew where to draw the line. She would not have condoned Ashik’s elopement with the neighbour’s wife if she knew. That would push her limits off too far. However, everyone was still in the dark, except Lutfun and Sheri. All they knew was this, that Ashik had not been home since the last soirée. Raja Hashem reported his wife Prema Hashem missing as well. Only Lutfun and Sheri knew the truth. It was their best kept secret. They continued to observe the trepidations without so much as a word.
A dream within a dream; a plot within a plot; a cloud over a cloud; a layer upon a layer, blues played out through the monsoon pour. Servants rushed to close windows around the house; the winds raged. The Lyra behind the wooden shutters, desperate in a bid to enter. When they couldn’t enter, the drifts drove up fallen branches of dead leaves and the discarded weeds. The rain hammered on the open verandah. Behind closed doors, Lutfun lit a few candles inside the house and placed them around the room amongst the decrepit, antic furniture. Then she sat down on a high-backed chair in an alcove with the mistress of the house, Ashik and Sheri’s mother, Mrs. Chowdhury.
They were Zaminders. Every inch a King, and rightful landlords of their villages, they retained the title Chowdhury; a remnant, a whiff of a bygone era. A hedonistic lifestyle, which entertained decadence, and amorous behaviours. The Zaminders could practically engage in anything they wanted. Womanising topped the list. They could take any number of women they pleased. The heavy smell of alcohol and the unending tinkling of ankle bells of court dancers stifled the palace air. Their official wives had not much say about who those Zaminders took as paramours. They were powerful men, who rarely cared about anyone’s feelings. Even less, they cared how they squandered their money. Whether or not, their personal accountants kept an honest, and vigilant tab on their accounts; the accumulated wealth over many generations. Clearly, some attracted more disrepute than the others. This was an era of no accountability; the Kings literally got away with every mortal sin on earth. The cozy confluence of power and money made them untouchables, the sanctuary of nobility, their refuge. They could even get away with bloody murder.
When revolution stirred, and governments turned, the Zamindari tradition began to stink. The wheels of overhaul underway, it foretold the end of this sagging system, with the slow, but sure raid of colonisation. This was the fulfilment of a destiny, riddled with the sins of fathers and the forefathers all the way up to the brim. An era, which had come round a full cycle. As the days ended, the crows and the bats went to sleep to wake up to a new rule of law. Although the class of Zaminders as a whole faced a major blow, however, they could not be cleansed any time soon. Some kept their old money, jewellery and their land assets. Then they forged deals with the new governments with serious facelifts. Such makeovers replaced the old corruption to a crisp newness.
God finally took a shine to the oppressed. Divine retribution descended on them in full fury like molten lead. It compromised the fate of these Zaminders from the House of Chowdhury too, which now hung in the balance. For a devastating flood occurred to boot the onslaught of colonisation. It drowned many of their villages, ousting them into the cold. Most thought of it as comeuppance. It drove them out of their opulent home and forced them to make a choice between either to leave the village or die in the flood. They chose the former and migrated to town. Their ancestral village remained submerged for many years to come. But they survived by entering into business, and flourishing on the repute of being a fallen aristocracy. They managed to remain well within the circle of similar high profile families.
Nobody knew what happened to Prema Hashem and Ashik Chowdhury. The night of the monsoon rainfall, the family sat grumbling over the disappearance of their beloved Ashik. Apart from Lutfun, and Sheri, no one else could shed any light. But their mouths were sealed. Somewhat they behaved like terrified, vexed children, who had been assaulted by a relative, and vowed to never divulge. The steady monsoon rain tapered off, like the gradual fading of anklet bells before a maudlin Chowdhury, soaked in alcohol and lust.
There was a knock on the door which the family couldn’t hear at first. At first, they thought the window rattled from the rage of the winds. But this rattle became louder, until a servant opened the door. There were visitors at the door, who had come with bittersweet tidings. Ashik Chowdhury appeared on the doorstep with Prema Hashem. It was puzzling, but the news they carried was even more shocking. That Prema Hashem dressed in a red bridal sari, had her head covered in a veil. It eluded Mr and Mrs.Chowdhury. They walked over the threshold. Ashik entered at first, followed by a demure Prema. In the lime candle light, she looked soft and young. Her fair, flawless beauty impressed everyone in the room, as they looked at her speechless. She came forward and stood before the mistress of the house.
Lutfun and Sheri watched in awe. Mrs. Chowdhury’s face paled. She rose from a leggy, but rickety chair. It creaked, and fell resoundingly giving way to its weak structure. She looked at Ashik with rage emanating through her eyes. She spat out, “What have you done? Are you in your right mind? Have you gone mad?” Ashik stood there. His head lowered in front of the revered Mr and Mrs. Chowdhury and the rest of the family.
“We’re in love,” he said.
It hurt Sheri to see his suave, talented brother slighted, and diminished to this.
“You couldn’t find anyone else to fall in love with? But of all people, it had to be her?” His mother retorted. And then, she declared to everyone’s astonishment.“Get out. Out! This very minute, I don’t care where you go!”
Mr. Chowdhury tried to calm her down by patting her on her back. But she was inconsolable. She was not prepared to give even an inch of a leeway. He said, “Calm down, where would they go in this rain?”
“Rain or sunshine, I don’t care. I disown you. Just go.” She then turned toward the family, and said in a low tone, but full fury, “Listen up everyone, if I find anyone helping them, make no mistake you too will be kicked out.”
She left the room. A servant followed her with a candle. Mr. Chowdhury, too meekly went out with her. However, Sheri and Lutfun couldn’t endure this anymore. They knew they were taking a risk, but they came forward to aid the newlywed anyway. As soon as the elders left, they whispered to Ashik and Prema that they could sleepover in the guest room for one night on the roof; a room, with a view of the full sky and a hanging garden of enchanting monsoon blossoms; green tiger ferns, yellow lilies, arundina pink, and orchids, growing abundantly over the musty, brick walls.
Although they colluded with Ashik, against Mrs. Chowdhury’s will. But this pleased Lutfun, as much as it pleased Ashik and his new wife. Ashik agreed to spend his wedding night with his wedded wife in his own house, but like a thief-in-a-hideout. The wake of a fresh rain triggered a keening of a muggy night’s wind. Mila’s apprehensions got the better of her.
At midnight, the window pane mirrored a candle flame. Inside the bedroom of the roof, there were four adults and a child sitting on a double mattress bed. Their great shadows reflected on the wall, showing their huddled heads. That was just a fraction of the reality. Anyone looking at this image would think these were heads of hunter gatherers overseeing a kill. The sound of the rain drowned their talks, falling heavily on the corrugated red roof. The colour of the roof faded into white in certain places. It lacked the lustre of a newly painted roof.
Those who sat on the bed were Ashik, Prema, Lutfun, Sheri and little Mila. They had not slept all night. After Mr and Mrs Chowdhury retired to bed, the siblings came together like water bubbles on a scalding pan drawn together in the middle. They heard Mrs. Chowdhury’s disciplinary orders, but chose to break them. Chaos loomed ahead but they couldn’t care less. Well, rules were meant to be broken, the much cliched thought prevailed in the minds of the young rebels.
“Tell us what happened?” asked Lutfun.
‘Well, it’s a long story.” Ashik answered.
“Tell us anyway,” she said.
While he told them their story of elopement, Mila listened in awe with her eyes spread wide and innocent to say, “wow, what a wild bunch of romantics.” She jotted down everything in her mind. Proud that she was in the company of such great rebels.
At the end of the alley from the House of Chowdhury, a masjid stood. Caught between a rock and a hard place, it housed not just the daily prayers of the faithful five times a day, but the imam of the masjid also had to attend perfunctory functions for the community. Lovers who had been discarded by society came here to be wedded. The faithful imam did his duties ever so reluctantly because he didn’t like to wed eloped couples. But then when he saw Prema Hashem and Ashik Chowdhury come to his door at sun down after the Maghrib prayer, he just lost his cool. At first, he didn’t want to marry them at all, because of Ashik’s standing in the society and second, because she was not officially divorced yet. But the adamant Prema was ready to divorce her husband, Raja Hashem, there and then without any hesitation.
The imam of the mosque still could not wed them legally until the divorce settlement had been finalised. Those were the strict Islamic stipulations which had to be followed. A waiting time of at least three months had to be observed for the previous marriage to be annulled. Or else the new marriage could not be sanctioned. The imam gave a lengthy sermon as to how the talaq or repudiation by repeating talaq three times was pre-islamic, known as Talaq al bidah. Although many may still practice it, not knowing full well, it was frowned upon and denounced by Mohammad. And then there was a third option, the judicial divorce where either spouse could divorce at a sharia court. These were practices from the age old Islamic tradition, which had not gone out of practice, or never would in a million years.
Commonly, men would pay a mohr to marry a woman among tribal desert men, and leave a note of talaq for the women when they went away for the long haul. Men paid heavily sometimes to give a talaq to a woman. But it was something both could put in a contract where each could give talaq to the other if the marriage broke down, in the event of violence or infidelity. Those were the solid Islamic laws, but people’s customs deviated far too much from such legalities. Sometimes even without any bearing on these laws, when all they had to do was utter talaq, talaq, and talaq three time to finish it. For Prema, that was exactly what happened. The imam accepted her repudiation, upon hearing it, and rendered the couple talaq. He summoned Raja Hashem to the mosque that evening, who pronounced the word three times in presence of the couple. And the imam put an end to this charade.
An overwhelming feeling of shame touched Raja Hashem afterwards. But his wife or ex-wife now did not share his emotion. The imam sat down with his Quran and Qalema and married the new couple. After they were blessed, they left the mosque. The newly wed felt a strange solidarity toward each other, thinking about the next course of action. There was none. So he bought her a red sari from a shop down the alley to make her at least look like a bride.
During the dying days of the Zaminders, there were many party politics played to keep the tradition alive. Deals were made with the British, but none worked out in favour of the Zaminders. The British well and truly expunged the tradition in the end. However, some were allowed to keep the title and their assets, such as palaces and so on. Although they were not the lords of their little kingdoms anymore, they had already gained clout for being old money, which they cashed in unfailingly. As profiteers always do, their reputation hinged on family connections. Prema Hashem’s dramatic wedding with Ashik Chowdhury became bad news for the House of Chowdhury.
The morning birds, the hungry crows and a cuckoo and an odd old eagle, all came out of their woodwork as the sun smiled upon the world. They flew onto the roof to feed themselves on the nectar of the fresh monsoon blooms. Prema took her morning bath and stood out on the roof. Mila had fallen asleep on the mattress here the night before. Sheri and Lutfun left early in the morning. The azan from the mosque, which the same imam sang, brought them to their senses that it was time to go to bed. Lutfun felt a thrill through her, sensing Ashik’s chivalry of love. So much so, that she began to make preparations to let her own desires be wedded to Sheri, known to the family, although hers and Sheri’s matter was more or less settled.
Lutfun lived in this house. Her own parents had left her on the doorstep of the House of Chowdhury, as a baby. Mrs. Chowdhury, a young mother herself, brought her home and raised her like her own children. Once she was old enough, Mrs Chowdhury told her about her biological parents. Sheri and Lutfun started off as friends, but they eventually fell in love in their teens. A relationship, everyone found it sweet.
Ashik, maybe a renegade, but he took full responsibility for what he did. Contrarily, Sheri was more of a conformist. Even though the age of Zamindari had died out, maintaining customary civility was paramount. Marrying the neighbour’s wife was a violation of those unwritten rules. However, Prema and Ashik were in deep denial. Her defection didn’t stir any sense of moral wrongdoing in her heart. Rather this strength of love emboldened them to embrace it squarely. Ashik and Prema, both knew that they had to leave soon. But they also knew that their life was southbound. Ashik would be disowned from his inheritance. But it didn’t seem to worry them.
Prema in all her prettiness, sat on the floor of an empty corner of the roof, this morning. Her silky long hair shone in the lazy summer’s sun, as she left it out to dry in the breeze. She watched birds play out their antics. They pecked greedily at a fallen seed on the roof. Seeds were mostly from ripened guavas gutted out of their pink core. Redhead woodcutters beaked and drilled through the russet poplar bark. Honeysuckle cups overflowed with juices and more from rain waters, nature’s ultimate goodies into which crows and ravens sipped. When Mila woke up, she found Prema here, and sat down by her side on the roof’s musty floor. They watched the birds together, poking each other like a choreographed dance.
“Do you want to feed them?” Mila asked Prema rubbing her eyes.
Prema Chowdhury smiled at her and nodded her head. She hardly slept all night. Mila saw how red her swollen eyes were. She smiled back and then they saw Ashik come out on the roof to join them. It was a gathering; a gathering of birds and humans. A few hours later, they heard footsteps on the stairs. Not sure whose they were, they braced themselves in anticipation. To their relief, they saw Lutfun appearing with a breakfast tray in her hand.
“Good, you’re all up,” Lutfun said.
“Yes, I’ve been up for a while now,” Prema smiled.
“Here I brought you guys some breakfast,” she said as she put the tray down on a rain-beaten table. It was most unusual that the newly wed tore down all the customs. Literally, her ex lived just next door. Prema could almost hear her own children crying, ‘mum, there’s mum on the roof of the House of Chowdhury.’
“Well you’d better finish breakfast and be off I guess, before the house wakes up to find you guys here,” said Lutfun.
And then she turned to look at Mila and said. “Shouldn’t you be off too? Go downstairs before your mother comes up here looking for you. Go now. Hurry.”
Mila gave her new aunty a hug and escaped down the flights of stairs. She startled when she found her mother, Nazmun Banu, on the landing, who was going to come up to the roof to look for her. She had been into her daughter’s bedroom in the morning. Nazmun Banu, looked at her sternly, waiting for an acceptable explanation. When her daughter had none, she held her by the hand and dragged her to their rooms. “Do you know that I nearly fainted this morning when I found out that you hadn’t slept in your room?” Do you even realise how much anxiety you’ve caused me? Now tell where you were. Tell me this minute.” Mila thought now or never. If her mettle was to be tested then this was it. There was no pride in untested virtue. Once and for all, how she responded to her mother now, proved her loyalty to the greater family. It was a real catch 22, whose side should she take?
Even at that tender age, Mila knew that she couldn’t betray her uncles. But neither could she betray her mother. She kept quiet until the tiresome tirades died out. Then Nazmun Banu broke into tears mumbling how her own life took a bad turn, because of Mila’s father, Ekram. He remarried her mothers’ best friend! Trust by far, was the fastest depleting values of all. Her love was blighted; it was like being caught between the last hours of sunset and total darkness. Ekram’s sensuous visitations on her doorsteps in the middle of the night, often awakened Mila to remind her, of her parents’ togetherness that Nazmun Banu after all was the first of his two wedded wives. And that he had come back at night to claim what was halal or kosher, as he frequented between his two wives. Nazmun Banu relented without much of a protest, because these kinds of intimacy with her husband gave this relationship a meaning and a reason for her to continue to stay in this House of Chowdhury.
Legitimate, it sure was. But whether or not it was moral, was the issue. Nazmun Banu lapsed periodically into deep depression. As often was the case, she broke down into tears in front of Mila and gave her a few tight slaps across her face for minor mischiefs or none at all. She just needed an excuse to vent herself. She became deceptive, like the pith of the citrus fruits’ hidden underlining. On the surface, all was smooth. Smiles and laughter. But they were as short-lived as the mandala, smeared with fleeting joy and pride. The colourful sand paint was painstakingly removed the moment they were finished. When dusk fell and the family retired to their quarters with their partners, only Nazmun Banu sat alone on her high regal bed wondering who her husband chose to be with for the night.
Sometimes she heard Sheri and Lutfun tinkle of soft laughter sailing through the open shutters toward the rose garden below. They bloomed, while she sat upright like a thorny anomaly. Did she not feel like romancing? Did she not want her husband to accompany her to the movies like all other couples of the house, hankering after the handsome chocolate hero of the time, Waheed Murad? But no, she suppressed those desires and allowed them to be taken in her stride. In silence, those desires ate right through her soul like termites until her soul turned into the mandala sand to be deposited downstream in the aftermath. For that was what her life had become in the end, termite stricken.
Only, no one saw this infestation. The poisonous resin ultimately ate away the core of her heart. Mila didn’t realise it, neither did her mother. But this poison left them both depleted of values, particularly Mila, who turned into a sadist. For when Nazmun Banu cried out in pain, and in front of Mila sometimes, she had a smile hovering on her lips.
Despite everything, Nazmun Banu was loyal to her in-laws, who in turn also respected her for being their eldest brother’s wife. Both Sheri and Ashik, Lutfun, and Mr and Mrs Chowdhury. They had more respect for Nazmun than their own son, Ekram or his second wife. The wife who could never step foot into this house, let alone be accepted. She stayed away from everybody, not because by choice, but because she was completely walled out by the members of the family, out of deference for Nazmun Banu. This special place or status that she held in the house was ample compensation. But Mila sometimes wondered why she did not leave? The answer was all too simple, because of security and money. Her own parents, who lived not too far away, but by the mosque had not agreed to this marriage. So they too had eloped just like Ashik and Prema. But under Mrs. Chowdhury’s strict moral codes, while she accepted Nazmun Banu, she had discarded Prema. Fair enough, Nazmun was an innocent child of sixteen, and Prema? A grown adult of someone’s wife. Those were her rules. In accordance with those rules, Ashik and Prema lost.
No big deal; risk takers such as Ashik and Prema, never cared for much rules, anyway. This total disregard for morals gave them a strange kind of a high. Because what happened to them later was unbelievable by any stretch of imagination. But they fared well. When the night fell, they stealthily came down from the roof followed by Lutfun. In the glow of the candle light, Lutfun showed them the door. On the road, they held each other’s hands. They had no money and certainly no where to go. Lutfun gave them some from her savings of her pocket money. It was about 200 rupees, which in those days, of 1960’s was a decent amount. They embarked on this journey, with only just that and a small sack of clothes and bric-a-bracs which Lutfun snitched from the kitchen. They headed out for the Raven’s end; the alley by the mosque, where they started anew in the slums.