The onions made her eyes water. She chopped them into small pieces and threw them into the hot oil and watched while they sizzled and popped. Tears ran down her cheeks and fell unchecked onto the folds of her sari. If anyone walked in, she could blame them on the onions.
The walls of the tiny kitchen seemed to be closing in on her and the room felt smaller with every passing moment. The ache in her chest made it hard to breathe. Four walls didn’t always make a home, they could also create a prison.
Gradually the tears turned to sobs and Shabana pressed her hand against her mouth to stop the sound escaping. Her mother always said that keeping secrets was a step away from telling lies. Ma was a wise woman.
The secret she had kept from everyone had given her more joy than she could ever have thought possible. Joy and a sense of power. The baby had been hers, all hers. She hadn’t even told her husband. It had been her secret and she had wanted to savour every moment of it. It would only have been a question of time till she could no longer hide her growing belly. She knew that the moment her mother-in-law found out, the baby would belong to everyone else and she would just be the vessel, a means to an end. Maybe she was being punished for her selfishness.
She could hear her coughing nearby. She wiped her tears with the aanchal of her sari and added the remaining spices to the onions. Turmeric, chilli, coriander and salt. The smell was familiar and comforting.
Amma was always there watching, waiting for her to make a mistake, any mistake, so she could run to her son and tell him how unlucky he was to have been saddled with a gadha like her for a wife.
She would wait eagerly for the times that both Amma and Abba would leave the house, be it for a few hours to visit relatives or a few days to see her sister-in-law, Jamila. Those were the times she felt alive. The door to her cage would open, and for the briefest of moments, she would feel free.
She cut up the vegetables and threw them in the pot with the spices. Rokeya Chachi, their landlord’s wife, had told Shabana that a pinch of panchforon added to the bhaji would give it that extra flavour. She looked around and found a little bit left in one of the small plastic containers cluttering the shelf and threw it into the mix. The aroma filled the kitchen.
Karim Chacha and Rokeya Chachi had always treated her with kindness and on the rare occasions when she was alone, Rokeya Chachi would call her over to sit and watch television with her. Those fleeting moments spent watching a film, listening to the latest Hindi songs or just whiling away time talking, made her feel like a person. Her kindly and overly nosey landlady appeared to know all the gossip and neighbourhood politics and relished filling Shabana in on all the goings-on.
Shabana could hardly believe her luck when the previous week her in-laws had taken the decision to go out of town for a relative’s wedding. They had stayed for three days, three whole days. It felt like Eid had come early.
After the washing and cooking food for the evening, she had gone over and spent an hour with Rokeya Chachi enjoying the drama of a soap opera unfolding on her television screen. They had been munching away on some homemade samosas while discussing where to purchase cotton saris at the best price when she realised that something was wrong. The ache in her belly had made her feel sick. Rokeya Chachi readily accepted that the pain was from an upset stomach and that she needed to go home.
In the few minutes it had taken her to get home, the pain had become unbearable. By the time she stumbled through the door, she had barely been able to stand. It had taken all her strength to get to the bathroom. She had been helpless and unable to stop her body from rejecting her unborn child. After cleaning up after herself she lay in bed crying till her tears ran out. She felt like an empty shell. Her husband believed that she was suffering from one of her headaches and had left her to rest.
A week had gone by and it was her fault that she was the only one grieving the loss of her baby. How strange that everything could change from one breath to the next.
Another cough. She looked up to see Amma sticking her head in the doorway. Her hair was scraped back into a neat little bun at the nape of her neck and her sari was freshly starched. The first time she had brought Amma her sari freshly starched, she actually smiled and patted Shabana on the head. For a moment, she had forgotten that Shabana was the daughter-in-law she never wanted. At home, Ma had taught her how to starch saris by dipping them in the water saved from straining the rice and then rinsing the saris out. The starch gave them a crispness when they dried.
Looking at her, she thought her mother-in-law must have been quite beautiful when she was younger. These days a permanent scowl adorned her face and her teeth were stained from the constant chewing of betel leaves.
“Don’t put too much salt in the bhaji like last time. It was inedible. Chee!” She wrinkled her nose and shook her head. Shabana tried not to laugh as she remembered her polishing every last morsel from her plate.
“Yes, Amma,” she responded dutifully.
“And be quick, we’re all hungry. Can’t wait around all day for you to serve the food.”
She could hear her mumbling as she walked away.
Her father used to tell her that she had magic in her hands, that the food she cooked left you licking your fingers and wanting more. Here, her cooking was always wanting. She sometimes wished she did have magic in her hands—to make Amma disappear.
Soon the bhaji was ready, chapattis were made and the tea piping hot. She called her husband and in-laws for breakfast. There was a small dining table in the room next to the kitchen with a small brown sofa and cane chair. The room was cramped but far better than the previous place they used to rent, where they ate on the floor of the kitchen.
She served the food onto Amma and Abba’s plates and then her husband’s. The three of them sat at the table eating while she fanned them. There was no ceiling fan in the room, just a table fan which was only used when the heat was unbearable. When Amma and Abba were away, Shabana and her husband would keep the fan in their bedroom and enjoy the coolness it provided, always being careful to put it back before her in-laws returned. Abba thought using the fan on a regular basis was a waste of money.
As they ate, she looked around the room, taking in the faded floral curtains and the small brass vase on the table filled with gaudy plastic flowers. The flowers made her sad.
A few months ago, they had been invited to Abba’s niece's wedding ceremony. Shabana had found a stray marigold that had fallen from one of the decorations and put it in her hair. Amma had roughly yanked the flower out and thrown it back on the ground.
“I don’t know what your parents taught you but in this family we don’t behave in such a vulgar way.” She had hissed at her.
When Shabana and her two sisters had been children, they would make garlands from flowers they found lying around. Her favourite had always been jasmine. The three girls would pretend they were princesses with their crowns of white scented flowers. How could flowers be vulgar?
When they returned home from the wedding and were finally in the privacy of their bedroom, her husband had tried to comfort her and that was the first time she realised that she loved him. He was a good man albeit weak.
She wondered what would happen if she told them about the baby. Amma would probably beat her chest and tell Shabana she was cursed. This was what happened when you took damaged goods to be your daughter-in-law. She could almost hear her saying it.
But this time her Amma wouldn’t be wrong; she was defective. Ma and Baba didn’t even think she would survive her first year. Unfortunately for Amma, gadhas were stubborn creatures.
Always a sickly child, she had problems breathing and every cold would go straight to her chest. Then, there were the headaches that felt like a thousand nails being hammered into her head. Sometimes they would only get better after she had vomited the contents of her stomach. These days, all she could do was to take some paracetamol and pray that the pain would subside. Abba thought it was an excuse for her to get out of doing her chores.
Life had taught her that there was no place for the old and physically weak or sick in this world. Even if Ma and Baba had never said it out loud, she knew she was a burden to them. Frequent visits to the doctor and medicine for something or the other didn’t come cheap. Her marriage had been one where both families benefitted.
Ma and Baba said it was to secure her future. She would have a husband to look after her when they were both gone. Her in-laws had agreed to the marriage on the basis that her father would guarantee a job for her husband-to-be at the office where he worked and give them two mobile phones, a Seiko watch, two beds and an almirah. That was her worth.
She leant over and gave her husband another chapatti. He smelt of soap and his face was freshly shaved. She could see a small cut on the side of his chin and wanted to reach out and touch him, to tell him how sorry she was.
The delicate aroma of the food wafted up to her nose and she realised her stomach was rumbling with hunger. When they had first been married, her husband had suggested she eat with them but Abba said that she should eat after everyone had finished. She had hoped her husband would fight a little harder but he had just kept quiet. These days she preferred to have her meals by herself.
“Shabana, I left two files on the bed, can you get them for me? I need them for work today,” said her husband, briefly looking up from his food. She nodded and went to fetch the files for him. The covers of the files were hard and shiny. They looked important.
“I hope they’re treating you well at work Anwar Baba, you’re looking tired,” said Abba, gesturing with his hand for another chapatti.
“Yes, everyone is very nice, they’ve given me a project to look after and it’s a big responsibility. Especially as I’m still quite new compared to some of the other fellows working there.” There was a tinge of pride in his voice.
Abba smiled, “Don’t let them work you too hard or take advantage of you.”
“No Abba, I won’t, don’t worry.”
“They are so lucky to have someone like you,” said Amma. Shabana felt the remark was directed at her.
When everyone had left the room, she cleared up and washed all the dirty pots, pans, plates and cups. She ate a chapatti with the bhaji and gulped down a cup of tea. There was still sweeping and mopping to do before washing the clothes.
Life had become a routine for her, looking after the household and its members. Each day bleeding into the next. There was hardly anything to break the monotony.
A few months after being married, in fact, when her husband had got the new job promised by her father, he had taken her to see a Bengali film in their local movie theatre. Amma had stopped talking to him for the next few days and Abba unsurprisingly said it was a waste of money. Abba thought everything was a waste of money. They hadn’t seen any films in the movie theatre since.
She gathered up the clothes for washing and realised that there was something heavy in her father-in-law’s trouser pocket. She felt inside and took out his mobile phone. He must have left it there by mistake.
She looked around then slowly put it in the folds of her sari and walked silently to her bedroom. Inside the wooden almirah was small box of bangles. She opened the box and took out a piece of paper tucked into the bottom. She unfolded it with trembling hands and called the number. Her heart was pounding. She wasn’t usually allowed to use the phone without permission.
Her father answered the phone. She could feel the tears pricking the back of her eyes.
“Shabana?” He sounded surprised.
“How are you, is everything ok?”
“I’m fine Baba, I just wanted to hear your voice,” she said quietly. The last thing she wanted was for Amma to catch her with the phone.
“You’re sure everything is alright? You don’t usually call the office.”
“How is Ma?” She asked instead.
“Yes, she’s fine, she misses you. We haven’t seen you for almost a month. You should come and see her soon…your sisters ask about you too.”
“I will, Baba. Tell Moina and Rina to study properly and not to spend their time daydreaming.”
“Don’t worry, they are both working hard for their exams.”
“Baba, I should go now,” Shabana couldn’t stop her voice from shaking. She wanted to tell him how much she wanted to come home, put her head on her mother’s lap and let the tears out till there was nothing left. She wanted to feel her mother’s hands stroke her head and hear her mother’s voice telling her everything would be alright.
Instead she hung up and put the phone on the table in the living room. She hoped Abba would think he just left it there.
After washing her face and composing herself, she went back to finish her chores.
Even those few words with her father made things bearable and the rest of the day passed uneventfully. She was relieved when night time came and she could retire to the bedroom.
She lay down and closed her eyes. The weariness in her body seemed to have woven itself into every fibre of her being. She felt her husband reach for her, his hand brushing against her breast and she recoiled. Almost immediately, he pulled his hand away and turned to face the other way.
She felt guilty and wanted to reach out, to take his hand and place it on her belly. She wanted him to put his arms around her and take the emptiness away. Instead, they lay there in the dark, back to back, both silent. Soon the night enveloped them both.
The morning came too quickly and Shabana dragged herself out of bed. She could hear the morning azaan in the distance. The morning light washed over the streets and buildings around her and she watched through her window as Dhaka awakened.
Friday began much the same way as any other day. The only difference was Abba and her husband were at home. She prepared breakfast and finished her daily tasks and then she waited for them to leave the house for their jummah prayers before going for her bath.
She came out of the bathroom and combed her wet hair in front of the small mirror in the room. She was no beauty. Her eyes weren’t big enough nor was her complexion fair enough. Passable in looks was how she would describe herself. But her hair was thick and long and she had been told that her smile was sweet. She wondered what her husband saw when he looked at her.
The day turned out to be a good one with both Amma and Abba eating their food without any complaints. On Fridays, she was allowed to eat lunch with them. She cleared away the plates and threw the fish bones in the garbage.
There was a knock at the door. It would probably be Karim Chacha to see Abba. Then she heard her father’s voice. She hurried out of the kitchen to see whether she had been imagining it but found him sitting on the sofa with both Abba and Amma. He looked up as she entered the room. Her heart was pounding; she prayed that her mother and sisters were well.
“Baba?” She walked towards him.
“Shabana, there you are. I was telling your mother and father-in-law that after your phone call yesterday, I was very worried about you.”
She glanced at Amma whose chest was heaving with anger. The look she directed at Shabana made it clear what was to follow when Baba left.
“Your Ma told me to come and make sure you’re not sick…oh, and she sent some halwa for Anwar.” He passed her a little tiffin carrier. She stood awkwardly for a moment, then put the container on the table and sat next to her father wanting to know everything that had been happening at home.
After a while she went to fetch some tea for everyone while her husband explained to her father the newest responsibility he had been given. Her father was all smiles when she returned with the tea.
The two fathers then sat discussing the recent strikes, both shaking their heads and saying that it was always the common people, people like them that suffered the most. Her mother-in-law barely said a word.
When her father finally took his leave, she found it hard to say goodbye without breaking down. Her husband offered to walk with him to the bus stop and she watched from the door as they both disappeared into the crowd.
Her mother-in-law was waiting for her in the bedroom.
“You ungrateful little wretch! What lies have you been feeding your father?” She shouted.
Shabana barely had a chance to open her mouth before her mother-in-law’s hand came down on the side of her face.
The slap took her by surprise. She raised her hand to her cheek. It felt hot and she tried desperately to hold back her tears. She didn’t want to give Amma the satisfaction of seeing her cry.
“How dare you take your Abba’s phone without asking. A liar and a thief!”
The hand came down again.
This time she couldn’t hold back the tears.
The third time the hand came down Shabana caught it in her own holding the wrist tightly as she pushed it away from her face.
“Enough!” The voice made both of the women turn around.
Her husband was standing in the doorway watching them. She had never seen him look like this. The pain in his face was visible but she could also see something else—anger. She was terrified it would be directed at her.
Her own anger was replaced with shame, mortified that he has seen her belittled and humiliated.
“Enough, Amma!” He walked over and put his arms around Shabana.
Amma opened her mouth to say something but he put his hand up to silence her.
“Are you all right, Shabana?” There was a tenderness in his voice that made her heart ache and she nodded her head.
He touched her cheek and his hand was cool and gentle on her face.
“Go and wash your face,” he said, “then go and put on your best sari”.
She looked at him, unable for a moment, to comprehend their meaning.
“Amma, I’m taking my wife out to see a picture. I’m sure you can make some food for us for the evening.” There was a defiance in his voice she had never heard.
She barely had the courage to look at Amma’s face and just stood there.
“It’s alright, go and change your sari,” he said softly.
This time she quickly turned around and ran to the bathroom to wash her face. She rummaged around in the almirah and took out a sari she had worn on Eid, a blue sari with a pink pattern, given to her by her parents.
When she emerged from the room he was waiting for her with a smile on his face and an expression she had been longing to see. Her mother-in-law was standing in the doorway. The look on her face was one of sheer hatred. In that instant, there was a part of her that didn’t care. Shabana and her husband stepped out onto the street and were engulfed by a sea of people pushing and jostling them but she barely noticed. All she was aware of was her heart soaring.