When I woke up that morning, it seemed like any other day. If I had known, perhaps I would have done things a little differently. Perhaps I would have spent less effort on trying to scrub the blackened grease off the cooking pots,
and snatched a few more moments looking out of the jali* in the veranda, hoping to catch a glimpse of the parrots that sometimes played in the mango trees at the back of the compound.
But I didn’t, so when the begumshaheb* nudged me awake with her foot, I scrambled to get up quickly. I had been dreaming of my mother—it was Eid, and she had made shemai for Shawon, Shyamal, Shiraj and me. We didn’t have shemai very often, but we were all convinced that Ma’s cooking was the best in our para. Sometimes the women from other houses asked her for advice on how to cook something, because Ma’s father had been a well-known baburchi* in Dhaka. We had never met our Nana, and the glory days of his time in Dhaka were long past by the time I was born. By then, Ma was just a pretty girl from a family which had seen better days, chosen by my Dada as a bride for his youngest son.
Even so, the early years of my childhood were happy ones. I was the first child—and the first grandchild—in the family, so it didn’t matter so much that I was a girl. Indeed, my name, Shahazadi*, was given to me by my Dada; though everyone called me by my daknam*, which was Onu. I had other names too, pet-names given by my father: shonamoni, janer tukra. When my father came home at the end of the day, he would call out “Where is Onu? Amar shonamoni koi-re?” My father and my grandparents loved me so much, that my mother often told me that I was too spoilt. But I knew she didn’t mean it. She was happy in those days, too.
Besides, I knew that my situation was unusual. My friend Rekha’s family was very poor. She had eight brothers and sisters, and when the ninth child was born, they named her “China”. The foreigners who came to visit one of the local NGO offices were very impressed. They thought that she had been named after the country China, which we call “Cheen”. Actually, her name meant “unwanted”.
By the time my third brother, Shiraj, was born, things had changed a lot for our family. My grandparents were both dead, their sons had fallen out with each other, and two of my father’s brothers, Shahed and Jabbar, had successfully cheated him and his other brother out of any claims to my grandfather’s property. My father was a proud man—he said he had his manshonman*, so he refused to go on fighting them, or to beg for his share. He had asked the village matbars* to intervene in the matter, but my uncle Shahed was married to Selim Matbar’s daughter, so they all sided with him.
Our family moved out of the compound into a small shack on another relative’s land, but my parents found it increasingly difficult to feed their growing family. When my Dada was alive, he had ruled the family with an iron hand, and my mother often lamented to our female neighbours that he had not allowed any of his daughters-in-law to use jonmoniyontron*. At the time of my grandfather’s death, my third brother was already on the way, and none of us could have imagined how our financial circumstances would change.
Within three years, my father could no longer afford to send us to school, and my brother Shawon and I, as the eldest children, were expected to help our parents in any way we could. My brother started to work at the village tea stand, serving the locals as well as the truck drivers who regularly passed through. I helped my mother with the household work, and looking after our cow and chickens. But things just kept getting worse.
My father worked as a day labourer for one of the landowners nearby, but we could not manage on what he earned, and the humiliation he felt at doing this work changed him. My mother said it had made him bitter—”Bhalo manushtarey noshto koira disey”. It was mostly she who suffered the brunt of his anger, although he never hit any of us, the children. Sometimes I felt as though he just looked for reasons to become angry with my mother, and despite the regular beatings, my mother seemed to accept this as her fate. In all the hours I spent bathing her bruises with cold water, she never said a word against my father.
I remained my father’s favourite however, his janer tukra. So it was a shock to me, when one day one of my khalas suggested that my parents send me to work for a family in Dhaka. My aunt actually raised the issue with my mother, pointing out that it would mean one less mouth to feed at home, and that whatever payment my parents received for my work could help meet the family’s expenses. “I know it will be hard for you to manage without her, but think about the benefits. It is just a small sacrifice! And you will have her back for the Eid holidays, anyway. It will mean that you can look after your boys better, they are the ones who will take care of you in your old age”. My mother did not respond to what my khala said, but her comment about the boys being more important made me feel bad, even though I knew it was true.
I need not have worried too much about that, though. My father was enraged when my mother raised the subject with him. “Do you think I’m a beggar?” he shouted, “that I have to send my only daughter to another man’s house to work as a servant”. It’s true that I didn’t want to go to Dhaka either, but I felt bad that night; I knew my mother had received a beating because of me.
A few months after that, after my khala had repeatedly promised him that I would be sent to a good family, that they would feed and clothe me well, and that they had promised to send me to a local school, my father finally gave in. I knew he didn’t want me to go—nor did my mother—but somehow this had become something we could not avoid.
I think that in the beginning I had hoped that the family in Dhaka would be kind. It was not long after I arrived there, that I realised that all the promises that my khala had made to my parents were lies. I don’t know whether she knew the truth herself I don’t believe my parents knew it—but perhaps I would have had to come to Dhaka anyway. We just couldn’t manage at home anymore.
I consoled myself with the thought that I would be home for Eid. But Rojar Eid came and went six months later, and the begumshaheb insisted that she needed my help preparing for the festivities. They had promised that I could go home for Korbanir Eid, but I couldn’t help wondering how she would manage without my help at that time. Still, I didn’t want to think about the implications of that too deeply, so I clung to the hope that this time, they would keep their promise. And surely my father would not let them keep me away from him for so long…
The family I lived with had two children—Ronnie, a few years older than me and Shoma, who was younger. But their lives were very different from mine. Ronnie was a skinny boy, who loved to play all kinds of sports, and the begumshaheb worried constantly that he didn’t eat enough. She spent a lot of time preparing good food to tempt his appetite. Both the children had nice clothes, and Shoma had many dresses. The begumshaheb liked her to look pretty.
At home, only Shawon and I got new clothes, and that was usually a couple of times a year. Our two younger brothers mostly made do with Shawon’s old clothes. Shoma had one dress that I particularly liked. It was red, with puffy sleeves, and was edged with white lace. I didn’t tell anyone, but I secretly hoped that someday, when Shoma grew out of the dress, they would give it to me. Shoma was tall for her age, so it would definitely fit me.
They both went to school, and sometimes it reminded me of the time when my brother and I were still studying. I had enjoyed lessons, especially in the early years of school. Even after it became difficult to manage the cost of uniforms and books, I was able to manage alright. The teachers mostly liked me, because I worked hard, and I found many of the things we studied interesting. The only subject I had difficulty with was English. No one at home could help me with that! Still, after Afshin master allowed me to sit at the back of his tutorial class, I improved in that too. And I was really happy the day that I came third in the annual exam, in my last year at school.
Now, I helped the begumshaheb to make breakfast each morning, and ironed the children’s clothes, and got their schoolbags ready. I woke up in the morning long before they did, and usually went to bed after them too. Once in a while, I would stand in the corner and watch television when they did. Ronnie never said anything to me, he was too busy with his own things, but Shoma used to make me fetch her things and get me to scratch her back or braid her hair. She would also complain to her mother if she ever saw me watching television. I couldn’t understand why she hated me so much. She was like her mother, that one.
And while they were at school, I did the household work as the begumshaheb instructed me to. The work never seemed to finish, and she was rarely happy with me. “What kind of donkey from the village are you? Do I have to show you everything? Can’t you do anything right?” she would often scream at me. She had already told me to call her begumshaheb instead of khalamma*, and to call her husband shaheb. I tried to do things the way she wanted, but often, she changed her mind. And somehow, I never seemed to get it right however hard I tried.
In the beginning, she didn’t hit me that often. But after she started, it got worse and worse. One time, when I was cleaning the fish, she slapped me so hard that I cut my hand on the boti. That time she was scared that the shaheb would find out, so she told me to lie and tell him that my hand had slipped. He didn’t like it when she shouted at the children, or slapped me, so she never did it in front of him. It wasn’t that the shaheb was particularly kind, but he liked peace and quiet in the house. He got irritated at any type of noise or commotion. But he was usually at work, so he didn’t know how often I got beaten.
The begumshaheb was a strange woman. She had many friends, and sometimes they would come over for tea in the mid-morning or late afternoon, before shaheb came home from work. Sometimes one of her friends would compliment her how well I did my work, which usually pleased her. She would say “I have taught her everything she knows. When she came here, she was such a khat*!” I always felt bad when she said that. But at those times, she seemed happy, and they would all laugh and gossip about their neighbours. Yet when the shaheb was home, she was much quieter, and was often sullen. She even snapped at Ronnie and Shoma.
I couldn’t understand why the begumshaheb sometimes got so angry. She had everything she could want. I thought about how excited my family would be to see all the things that these people had. Their flat was large and had lots of fancy things; they had a fridge, a VCR, a big TV, even a car that the shaheb used each day to get to his office. When I first came to Dhaka, I was amazed to see that they had a beautiful paka bathroom—I had never used an indoor toilet before. In the village, some people had sanitary latrines—a porcelain basin at ground-level with a footrest on either side—but there were no “chair” toilets.
Sometimes, when begumshaheb was resting in the afternoons, I would sit on the verandah by myself and think about home—imagining what my parents and my brothers were doing, and how my friends were. I would daydream about how we used to play ekka-dokka and chhi-buri, splash about in the cool water of the village pond as the sun blazed overhead (my mother was always worried that I would become kalo*!), sneak about trying to identify the trees from which we could steal a few kacha aam, to devour as bharta with chilli powder and salt—nothing ever tasted as good as those stolen green mangoes!
Sometimes a whole afternoon would go by while I was daydreaming, and the begumshaheb was sleeping. But once the children came back from school at three o’clock, things got really busy. And it was at that time, and before the shaheb came home at six-thirty, that I was most likely to be on the receiving end of the begumshaheb’s wrath. Things were never done quickly enough for her, and in the kitchen, I was always worried about dropping one of the heavy pots, or spilling something, which really made her angry.
This morning, things started badly because the children awoke late, and the begumshaheb and I were rushing around, trying to get them ready in time to leave with the shaheb, as he set off to work. In the hurry, I dropped one of the teacups, and it smashed on the ground, spilling the dregs of the tea. The begumshaheb dealt me a stinging blow to my cheek—so hard, that my ears started ringing, and tears sprang to my eyes.
“It is only a teacup, for heaven’s sake! You don’t have to hit her for it!” the shaheb rebuked her sharply. “What do you know? She never does anything properly! It’s all right for you. You don’t have to deal with her stupidity all the time!” The begumshaheb shouted back. To my amazement, the shaheb’s hand flew out and delivered a sharp blow to her cheek. “Don’t you ever raise your voice to me like that again!” he thundered, before stalking out of the room. As she lifted her face to look at me, her reddened cheek clearly marked by the force of his slap, I saw the hatred in her eyes, and I knew that I would pay for this; both for being the cause of her injury, and more importantly, for being a witness to it.
The door slammed as the shaheb and the children left. I didn’t dare look at the begumshaheb. There was a moment of utter silence, and then it was as if a kalbaisakhi* storm came down on my head. A hail of blows landed all over my body, and although I lifted my arms in a futile gesture to shield myself, it was useless. She seemed crazed by her rage, and I knew that there was nothing I could do to stop her. I had a sudden fleeting hope, that if she beat me very badly perhaps they would have to send me home. It would be a small sacrifice, and well worth it to see my family again after so long.
But then I had no time to think anymore. Somehow, I stumbled into the kitchen, followed by the begumshaheb, hurling shrill abuse at me, “Haramjadi*, I’ll show you! I’ll teach you a lesson you’ll never forget!” I looked up in horror, to see that she had picked up the heavy belon* and was coming at me. The first blow landed on my leg, and I heard a sickening crack, and felt an indescribable burning pain shoot through my leg. Another blow landed on my back. As I screamed in agony, I saw her raise the rolling pin again, and I closed my eyes in anticipation of the blow.
As the belon landed against my ear, a red haze seemed to flood through my head. When I opened my eyes again, my vision was blurred. I could see the begumshaheb’s mouth moving, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. I wondered—with a surge of terror—whether the blow on my head had made me deaf.
And that was my last thought before, mercifully, everything faded away, and I felt myself falling into a deep, dark blackness…
*Mistress, lady of the house
*”It has ruined a good man”
*Kitchen implement for slicing
*Dark-skinned, literally “black”
*Fierce spring storms that come from the North-West, commonly known as “Nor-westers”
About the Author
Farah Ghuznavi is a writer, newspaper columnist and development worker, whose writing has been widely anthologized in the UK, US, France, Canada, Germany, Singapore, India, Nepal and her native Bangladesh. Her story “Judgement Day” was awarded in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010, and “Getting There” placed second in the Oxford University GEF Competition. Farah was Writer in Residence with Commonwealth Writers in 2013. She edited the Lifelines anthology (Zubaan Books, 2012), and subsequently published her first short story collection Fragments of Riversong (Daily Star Books, 2013).