The girl from the window across
by Neeman Sobhan
Naureen gave the habitual double push to the handle of the tall, second floor window of the teachers’ common room till it belched open, letting the early Monday morning air into the corners pent-up all weekend, like her. She inhaled Rome’s not-too polluted city air. There! That felt good.
In the last month this had become a ritual: on Mondays, when she had mid-morning classes, she came to the institute hours early just to be the first teacher to unlock the Sala Docenti. It meant something to her, arriving to a pristine, silent space after the unending weekend, with ma-in-law, sweet, but always cooking up elaborate Bengali meals, splattering oil and turmeric on the ‘Oyster shell cream’ purity of Naureen’s IKEA kitchen; her youngest brother-in-law Tareq, slouching on her computer desk, constantly on Facebook; her father-in-law on the TV room couch dozing to the loud lullaby of Al-Jazeera news channel or ATN Bangla. Although she hid her irritation from Shafiq, by Monday morning she was panting to escape somewhere, anywhere, she did not feel so…. besieged.
She had lied about her class timing and had started to leave her house earlier than she needed to, even before Shafiq, slipping out on stockinged feet, shoes in hand, to avoid her early rising ma-in-law, who would have insisted on frying her a quick paratha --a hundred calories right there, which she would not have dared to refuse for fear of hurting her feelings or bringing on a lecture on the disastrous effects of dieting on her already thin face, when she would rather eat the equivalent calories in the form of a peaceful cappuccino and cornetto at some distant bar on the way to Piazza Vittorio.
Driving through the morning traffic of Viale Cristoforo Colombo, she would feel like a tired swimmer lunging for shore. Dry land was this humble Staff common room of the Faculty of Oriental Studies of La Sapienza, which since the last month had grown into a hallowed refuge for Naureen, with her home virtually taken over by her visiting in-laws from Dhaka. She didn’t even know how long they were staying, and whether or not her married sister-in-law from London would also descend on them for a week. Although Shafiq was a supportive husband, she felt scattered most of the time. Here at the Sala Docenti, she felt whole again, managed to write between classes. Above all, here she was alone…… and free.
She leaned over the window sill and smiled. No, the familiar view of the narrow downtown street, gritty and bleak, so different from her green suburban neighbourhood with its apricot tinted villas, had not vanished overnight. There below her, stretched the scuffed sidewalks of Via Principe Amedeo. Nothing princely about it anymore, this street was now lined with those rundown buildings that must have been fine palazzos once. The windows facing hers were so close she could almost see into the ones that were open. Shabby, or to be fair, rootless people lived there, obviously; people who underlined their impermanence by not washing the window panes, nor bothering to hang curtains or put even a tiny plant on their sills. Could one say: windows were the eyes to the soul of a house? She must jot that down. Anyway, it certainly said something about the sort of people who lived inside, and in this area.
One day, when her own car had gone for servicing and Shafiq was dropping her to class, Tareq, who had accompanied him, said with that snorting laugh she found so grating, “This is University of Rome’s Department of Oriental Studies? Such a boring modern building! I thought it would be something neo-classical, all columns and statues. And Bhabi, such a seedy area! It could be Old Dhaka!”
“Or Purana Paltan, where you grew up, may I remind you?” Naureen had retorted, both surprised and annoyed to feel so defensive. After all, this area of Rome meant so little to her.
“Purana Paltan was an aristocratic area once.” Tareq said as he got out from the back and moved to the front passenger seat. “So was this.” Naureen said gathering her brief case and handbag. “Anyway, this is an old quarter of the city, overpopulated by immigrants. What do you expect? Living in Dhaka where the whole city has become one huge slum, you should talk!”
Shafiq’s urbane and neutral voice interjected, for her benefit, she knew. “Dear boy, here in Rome the Piazza Vittorio and Esquiline area is like the Latin Quarter in Paris. It’s the throbbing, ethnic heart of Rome. The seediness comes with the territory.”
Naureen was mollified enough to laugh and concede, “Come on! Hardly the Quartier Latin! If so, certainly without the charm of the French, and full of rustic Bengalis to boot. But it’s not that bad! And our institute may not be within the old campus, but has a courtyard inside. Another day, I’ll show you around.” She reached through the window to pull Tareq’s ear. “Now, go get some culture. You are as bad as the Bengalis here, who know nothing of historical Rome. At least, see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, while you’re in this area.”
Of course, if truth be told, Naureen didn’t feel any differently from Tareq. If anything, she detested this area. It reminded her too much of Nawabpur, the original aristocratic section of Old Dhaka, back in Bangladesh, where her elder sister, in these modern times, patiently—no, stupidly, lived her intolerable existence in a joint family situation with her once affluent and overly-conservative in-laws. If she, Naureen, had been in Asma Apa’s shoes she would have taken her child and left her abusive husband years ago.
But who would have imagined that here in Italy, Naureen would be frequenting such a dingy neighbourhood. And for what? Not financial gain, that was sure. University teachers in Italy got peanuts. Yet here she was: Naureen Omar, daughter of an erstwhile Ambassador, a graduate in English Literature from CUNY, wife of a UN official, and now, out of sheer boredom, turned into a professoressa, teaching a handful of young Italians enough Bengali to fulfill their foreign language requirements to pass the Laurea exams towards degrees in a slew of new-fangled liberal arts subjects that she herself would have loved to enroll in.
Still, she had to admit that she had become fond of her job and felt a sort of affection, if not for this locality, for this room and this particular view from the Sala Docenti window. Was that how Asma apa also felt in Dhaka, she who had lived like Naureen, with her diplomat parents in gracious apartments and houses all over the world—Istanbul, Brussels, Tokyo and Washington D.C, as she looked out from the arched windows of her in-law’s crumbling ancestral home into the squalid courtyard below, where once Victorian horse carriages for carrying Nawabs, and their veiled Begums and daughters, would be tied near the tall street lamps of alleys, now full of tea stalls and tailor shops, where rain water accumulated, riksha pullers bargained loudly with passengers in Dhakaiya accented Bangla and hawkers smoked biris and spat betel juice on dark walls afflicted with the leukoderma of tattered political posters, while mothers yelled from narrow doorways at children playing on the street?
Meanwhile, what was this noise at the corner of Via Principe Amedeo? Oh! Great! Some idiot had parked his delivery van right in front of the Joi-Bangla grocery shop and the Chinese shoe store, clotting the flow of morning traffic. And where were the vigili now, when they were usually strutting about in their white uniform dispensing traffic fines left and right?
A harangue of honking car-horns lifted up to Naureen. Like a cloud of smoked bees, she thought, as she squelched shut the window over the noise. But she did not turn away. Something had caught her eye. There, against the open window of the building directly opposite her, were two figures, a man and a woman.
The window was near enough to pass a really long extendable IKEA curtain rod from end to end. One day, at a window on the floor above, she had seen a dark, stocky man in an apron streaked with turmeric stains, smoking the butt end of a cigarette while stirring something that was not visible. The scent of curry had issued forth as he opened the window to yell down at someone in the street in a Bangla dialect. Now, at the window just across from her, the couple stood in profile. Their caramel colouring and darkly etched features were unmistakably Bengali. What was even clearer, from their posture and gestures was that the two were having a fight.
When it happened, she didn’t hear the stinging report of the young man’s sudden slap, but saw the young woman’s head swing towards Naureen. The man turned around and disappeared inside, leaving the woman facing the window pane, her expression tight and venomous, her angry eyes flicking and darting about while looking out.
They seemed to stop briefly at the Sala Docenti window. Naureen slipped aside. Her breath came fast. Was that how it had all started for her sister: an unwitnessed scene, perhaps in a bedroom, oppressive with the carved four poster bed and other Indo-Victorian furniture; and the angry sunlight from the semi circle of multi-coloured glass panels like an open hand-fan on top of long windows, striking on a pale cheek a five finger stripe of lurid rainbow light? What about the colourless, invisible stamp of insult and injury, or disappointment, loss of faith and love: didn’t those leave stinging marks?
Naureen saw that the girl had withdrawn. The traffic noise also seemed to have ceased. She reopened the window. Just then, at street level, she saw the young man come out of the mammoth door of the old palazzo. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a cheap blue windcheater, he was not unlike the many young men Naureen saw everywhere. Once she had contributed a piece for one of the institute’s journals, which one of her students had translated into Italian.
“All over the city and in this neighbourhood stretching between the Terminal and the piazza beyond the Institute, mild featured immigrant Bengali youth with hopeful hearts and hungry eyes struggle to blend in as they hawk bags and shoes and racks of clothes; sell trinkets and baubles from sidewalk stalls; or hang around the doorways of established Bangladeshi enterprises: money exchanges, call centers, travel agencies, video shops and restaurants, waiting for the opportunity to realize their own dreams of a new and better life, make their expensive and difficult journey to a strange land worthwhile.”
Naureen craned her head to watch the young man and try to see if his face bore remorse or anger or confusion. His face was inscrutable as he marched off to the left, past Lucky Travels, the Bengali agency from where she had bought tickets to go to Dhaka last December. He passed the Ruposhi Bangla Alimentari grocery where Naureen needed to buy today a packet of cumin powder and tamarind paste, ma-in-law had asked her yesterday. Now the young man slowed before a call center, reminding Naureen to buy a pre-paid phone card, either Happy World or Love-Talk, to call her mother in Dhaka or talk directly to Asma apa about her decision, to go back to Aftaab or file for divorce.
Naureen glanced at the window opposite. The girl was back at the window, her hair pushed back from her face and tied up in a hard, decisive knot, both her thumbs busily working on a message on her cell phone. The young man walked on, his shoulders hunched, hands in his pocket, his pace slow; while, the girl now talked into the phone, her face grim. Naureen watched the man till he disappeared around the corner.
“Buon Giorno!” Someone had entered the common room. Naureen turned to respond. It was the pretty, sleek haired lecturer of Chinese, whose name Naureen didn’t know. When she returned her gaze to the window, the girl was not there any more. Naureen glanced at the clock. Still half an hour to her class. She ought to start preparing today’s lesson: the doing verb ‘Fare’ in Italian and ‘Kora’ in Bangla. She had a list: Bajar kora (to shop) gaan kora (to sing) ranna kora (to cook) biye kora (to marry) Jhogra kora (to fight). And surely not inevitably, Mardhor kora (to beat up)?
But exactly when had this all started? And how was it that Asma apa had not shared anything with her. In spite of the three years difference between them, they had been close as girls, giggled about boys. When the first proposal of marriage came for Asma apa, it was in Washington. Naureen was still in school-- her last year at Walt Whitman High in Bethesda; and Asma was a sophomore at George Washington University. Their father had turned down the proposal, saying that the Doctor chap, doing his third year of residency at a hospital in New Jersey was too old for Asma.
In retrospect, Naureen always thought that he would have been far better for Asma apa than Aftaab, who had burst on them a month later, suddenly and dazzlingly like the sun, which was his name; and like the sun, he had blinded them all. He came as a visitor, the son of a friend of the family, visiting relatives in Canada and on his way back to Dhaka.
Far too handsome for his own good, with those laughing, slightly dissolute hazel eyes, he was the right age but the wrong temperament for shy and serious Asma. He was high-strung, high-spirited and mercurial most of the time, with short withdrawals into melancholy, which gave him a romantic aura. Except for Naureen, who found his charm and overly courteous manners somewhat fake, he had enchanted the whole family, especially their mother. When at her insistence they would all go together on tedious trips to Skyline drive, Luray caverns, Harper’s Ferry, the Tidal basin to see the cherry blossoms, and all the rest, Naureen would observe Aftaab from the sidelines.
Nobody quite found out exactly what he did back home, except that he was in the family business and heir to the family’s wealth; or, what his exact educational qualifications were, except that his English was perfect. Their parents knew of the family. The grandfather had been a diplomat during Pakistan times, which put Aftaab in a favoured position with Baba.
Naureen remembered one particular evening, an outing. It was Asma Apa’s birthday and their parents were going to an important reception. Aftaab had taken permission from them to take both the sisters out. They had dined at a self-consciously charming restaurant in Georgetown, where the corner table with its little red shaded lamp was far too cosy for three people. Later, Aftaab had driven them to the Tidal basin area to walk off the desserts that he had shared with both sisters, though his fork had strayed more lingeringly on Asma’s Crème brûlée, Naureen had noted.
Walking up the Lincoln memorial, she suddenly found herself to be the only one chattering away. She had flopped down on the steps, chin in hand, at the feet of the skeletal President who gazed for all eternity at the Reflecting Pool. Asma and Aftaab had stood leaning against a column, wallowing in an indecently intimate pool of complicit silence, Naureen had thought in a nameless rage. They were not even looking at one another, yet they seemed locked in an embrace of mutual awareness. Their fingers must have touched in the dark.
Naureen had known then that she had lost her sister. Not just to a man, but to a fate that loomed larger than the shadow cast by the giant sitting above them brooding over some dark future. The breeze from the tidal basin was not cold but Naureen had shivered as she stood up, breaking the moment. It made her angry now that she had not trusted her blind, childish instincts to pull Asma away from those hypnotic eyes that still kept her sister ensnared.
She gathered her notes and decided she would have to talk to Asma soon. In the street below, the girl had emerged from the building. Dressed in a shalwar-kameez topped by a sweater and shawl, and with her hair in a pony tail, it was obvious that she could have looked prettier than she did just then as she stood looking to her left and right. A woman in a sari pushing a pram came out of the building. The girl turned away to delve into her bag, but left off as soon as the woman was gone. And just when Naureen spotted in the distance, the girl’s partner, ‘the slapper’, walking back, the door of the Sala Docenti squeaked open and she heard a meek voice saying: “Scusi, professoressa, ma avete visto per caso Professor Santos?”
Naureen had a good mind to ignore the interruption, but from the silence behind her it was clear that the Chinese teacher had either gone to the toilet or left. She turned around: “No, he has not been in yet.” Below, the young man was talking to the girl with his head lowered. She was facing away. All of a sudden she turned to him and gave his chest a savage push. He lost his balance, took a step back, then swayed into place only to receive two more shoves on his shoulder.
Behind Naureen, two male colleagues walked into the room, chatting. One went to the toilet, the other pulled a chair at the conference table. Naureen pretended to stretch at the window. The girl’s flinty voice came up to Naureen : “…..ki bhabso? Amar kono maan shonman naayi? You think I have no self respect?” Naureen would have applauded had it not been for the professor, back from the toilet, coming up to the computer near the window. “Posso?” He asked.
“Si! Si! Prego! I was just leaving for my class.” Naureen picked up her briefcase and bustled out of the room. In the open corridor, she slowed her pace. Italian professors entered the classroom at least ten minutes late. Today she had arrived too early. With a shrug, she put down her things on the desk and leaned against it. She really should get a phone card and call Asma apa today. But what should she say to her now?
Earlier she had demanded why Asma still agreed to live with her in-laws instead of going ahead with her plans to move to their own place away from Old Dhaka. Since Baba’s death, their mother was waiting for the sisters to convert the Gulshan house into independent apartments. What was stopping Asma and Aftaab?
Asma had replied in that cool, anemic voice of hers about Aftaab’s brittle male ego shattering to crumbs at the mention of building a flat on his in-law’s or wife’s property and moving there. This always made Naureen want to scream: not so much Aftaab’s chauvinistic position but Asma’s acceptance of it, without reaction or rancour. Naureen’s disappointment and humiliation over what her beautiful and talented sister had been reduced to made her feel like the victim. She could not face her own in-laws when they solicitously asked about ‘Asma’s situation.’ Naureen’s own accomplishments and domestic contentment had been reduced to ashes in her mouth. Her mother was so wrapped up in the woes of her elder daughter, she had no time to spare for Naureen, had never even visited her in Rome, always saying: “I am so grateful you are well settled. You have a gem of a husband and wonderful in-laws, who never complain that you are still not ready to have children. Really, my dear, it’s about time. Still, I don’t worry for you. But poor Asma needs me to be around.”
The time before the last, when Naureen had called her mother to ask about Asma, she had said, “What to say, it’s complicated. You know your sister, how she suppresses everything and only reaches out when she cannot take it any more. But it is so hard to believe that a sweet natured fellow like Aftaab would raise his hands on his wife. With me he is still so charming and considerate. You know, the other day when my blood pressure shot up and everyone was too busy, he took me to Doctor Islam’s clinic and sat with me through out, making me laugh with his hilarious comments. But God knows what comes over him with Asma? Apparently, he now gets angry even if Asma broaches the subject of moving. So they wait endlessly for one of Aftaab’s projects to materialize. So unlucky! Meanwhile, he argues that since they live rent-free with his parents, have a household run by the old retainers of his family, and little Salman gets looked after, why change things? What can poor Asma do but tolerate the situation, always being tactful, trying never to upset him. Very stressful, when one cannot predict what sets him off, especially now that she is doing so well. Do you know, she is now the Vice Principal of the school, but has kept it secret from Aftaab? Though, I don’t know how he might react if he found out from some other source. Oh! It’s complicated.”
This sort of conversation made Naureen seethe. Didn’t anyone see what Asma was doing to herself? Didn’t anyone see that she could still save herself by distancing herself from a loser like Aftaab? With all the education and opportunities that had been part of Asma’s privileged upbringing, what had she done with it? She had made a wrong choice, married on an unfortunate impulse a good-for-nothing, egoistical weakling who still lived with his parents because his own career never took off. Meanwhile, look at the life Asma was leading, leaving the child in the care of his grandparents to escape to work at a school for her sanity, and some financial independence.
Well, at least, Asma’s school paid better than Naureen’s university! Wasn’t it lucky that in Naureen’s case, they didn’t need her income to live on? She didn’t even know Shafiq’s actual take-home salary at the World Food Program of the UN. He kept her like a princess. Flying home to Dhaka once a year, and traveling here and there in summer. After their successful Mediterranean cruise last June, which would have been perfect if Shafiq’s mother hadn’t come along, but that was a minor glitch. This year they were thinking of doing a Norwegian fjord cruise with their friends Putul and Omar! She wished it could have been with her own sister. While reading up about it she had thought Asma apa would have adored the remoteness, the ancient glaciers and the ‘midnight sun’. Well, perhaps, not the last. Asma, probably had enough of her own endlessly glaring ‘sun’. If only Naureen could drag her out of the garish midnight she was plunged in.
After the most recent violent episode, Asma had left and gone to her mother. The last time this had happened, she had gone right back to Aftaab after a few weeks. This time it had been almost a month and she was still holding out at her mother’s. The arrival of Naureen’s in-laws had coincided with this period, and she had not had the time or privacy to call Asma at the right moment. Dhaka was ahead of Rome by four hours, and Asma was in school all day and did not like to take personal calls then. By the time Naureen returned home and the long drawn out business of family dinner was over it was already past midnight in Dhaka. On other days, her in-laws were always around. So, she kept postponing the phone call.
She started to text Asma. Stay strong, don’t give in. Will call on Friday around your lunch time. Twelve noon in Dhaka was eight in the morning here, but Ma-in-law was up then. Seven or six was not good either; perhaps, five? Oh! God, to get up so early just to give a pep talk about divorce to poor Asma, for whom it was nine in the morning of a holiday. But it had to be done. Will call on Friday, nine thirty your time. She pressed ‘send’ and just then her cell phone rang.
“Pronto?” Naureen responded in a solemn, professorial tone.
“Slamalekum Apa, my name is Rezwana Sultana.” The voice was sweet, the Bengali pronunciation cultured. “I run a Bengali Ladies club in Casilina, and a Music school for Bengali children, the Rome Shishu Niketon. I heard you speak at the Lalon festival organized by the Embassy and wanted to invite you to our meeting on the occasion of Women’s Day on March 8.”
Naureen said, “That’s tomorrow.”
Rezwana said, “Truly sorry apa for this late invitation, but I called you at home last week. Maybe no one gave the message. Today I got your cell number from the lady who picked up the phone.”
Naureen muttered aloud, “Oh! That must have been my Shashuri.”
Rezwana chirped on with the practiced ease of a sales person, “Apa, we would be honoured if you would enlighten us with your presence. Some of the other Apas and Bhabis from the embassy and various international organizations here in Rome will also come. We would be grateful if you would also speak to us, sharing your experience and your wisdom.”
The students were still not here. Naureen sat down. “Are you by any chance a friend of Fatema, who has a beauty salon in Casilina?”
“Jee, jee Apa. I live close to her parlour. The meeting will also be near there.”
“Quite a few Bengalis live in that area, na?” Naureen asked.
“Quite a few?” Rezwana laughed. “Onek! We are like a little city here. Fatema and I call our neighbourhood Piazza Bangladesh.”
“Oh? I always thought Piazza Vittorio was the real heart of Roman Bangladesh.” “Apa, it used to be so. Now most families have moved to our Casilina area.”
That other ghetto, Naureen thought. Many of her Italian students whose parents did not live in Rome, rented apartments there making it the new bohemian quarter.
Rezwana was talking away: “But the fresh arrivals start out in Piazza Vittorio. My friend Kajol used to rent out rooms in her apartment there. What to say, Apa, I have seen with my own eyes how they crowd a dozen to a room, like flies, sleeping on the floors. Then they rent apartments jointly, employing someone to cook for all of them as in a ‘Mess’. But once these Bengali chaps get steady jobs and marry, they move out to our area.”
Then after the briefest pause Rezwana asked, “Apa, where do you live? In EUR or Laurentina, I am sure, outside the cramped ‘ganjaam’ of the centro and our area, right?”
“Actually beyond EUR: a residential area called Casal Palocco. You have heard of it?” Naureen heard Rezwana’s pleasure from the lilt when she exclaimed, “Oh! Where the foreigners live?” Naureen knew that struggling educated immigrants like her, for whom Rome was life in claustrophobic ethnic communities and not ‘foreign’ enough, desired the likes of Naureen to live far away from them, in some imagined better world, which they aspired for their children. The students were trickling into class. Naureen’s voice quickened, “Listen, I have to go now. Text me the time and place of your meeting. I’ll be there.”
The meeting turned out to be at a pizzeria run by Rezwana’s husband, co- partner of an Italian. This part of Rome, was indeed, the new up-and-coming Bengali enclave, where other ethnic communities also lived and worked. Here some of the walls had graffiti in Bengali and Arabic. Naureen had come only for Fatema’s beauty parlour, to encourage her. She was also cheaper and better than her Italian hairdresser.
A make-shift dais had been created and a plastic table set up for the speakers to sit at. On the wall were posters in Bangla for Woman’s day and some slogans, among them a few against domestic violence. The room was full of over-dressed women in gaudy saris, already sitting in rows on white plastic chairs, their mixed perfume of jasmine and rose twisting up like ivy through the undergrowth of the yeast and melted mozzarella scents of the pizzeria.
Naureen looked around. She expected to see the female officials of the Bangladesh embassy and the embassy wives, who always attended events organized by the immigrant community; but was surprised and relieved to see also Putul and Sabera bhabi, whose husbands were senior officials of UN agencies, like Shafiq. They were all familiar as relatives after years in the same city and organization.
Putul, in a chiffon sari and a string of pearls, waved to her. “I didn’t know you were coming, Naureen. We could have come together.”
“Oh! I came straight from class. Wow! Is that one of your own hand painted saris?” She said, and Putul spread out the hanging anchal end of her sari, saying: “Not bad, right? Didn’t know what to wear. Never been to these gatherings. This Rezwana, phoned to say she had heard me sing Tagore at some embassy function and could I talk about the emancipated women of his era. You think these ladies are interested?”
Sabera bhabi, had been a political activist and social worker in her time. She said, “We ought to make an effort to encourage and inspire these ladies. I feel guilty that we cannot include them in our UN Ladies club activities, nor mix with them socially. Such a motley group! But, I felt we should show our solidarity, at least on Women’s day.”
Fatema appeared in a glittery embroidered sari. Behind her was another woman in a similar sari. She was introduced as Rezwana, who launched into a flowery welcome and showed them where the speakers should sit. After the meeting was formally opened, Rezwana introduced the female counselor of the embassy as an accomplished and extraordinary woman. The lady got resounding applause by gushing into the microphone, “Every woman is special. Each of you here, is extraordinary… oshshadharon.”
Naureen was the second last speaker, so she had chosen to sit at the far end of the table. As she waited for the poetic speech, which was only in bud, to slowly blossom to its finale, she looked around the audience. And there she was, in the third row. The girl from the window across Sala Docenti.
Today, she looked prettier, and more poised than the others, or perhaps it was the air of detachment around her. Even today, she was not in a sari but her shalwar-kameez ensemble was quite smart, and she looked taller than Naureen remembered, not as fragile. Her shoulders were held back, her chin out.
“Who is she?” Naureen whispered to Rezwana sitting next to her at the table.
“Apa, from what I have heard, she is newly married, arrived a year ago.” Rezwana whispered back, then realizing that the booming microphone in the small room made it unnecessary, spoke in a low but normal voice. “Her name is either Mukta or Mukti and is better educated than her husband. People say he married her under false pretences, giving her father wrong information about himself, saying he is a ‘business man’ here. She is naturally disappointed and looking for a job. She is smart enough.”
The lady next to Rezwana, the Vice-president of the club, made a face. She leaned over and though her voice was low it was sharp as vinegar: “Who, that one? I’ll tell you about her, Apa. As soon as Miss-High-and-Mighty landed here, she’s been nothing but trouble. Her husband Joshim respects my hubby as an elder brother, always ‘Bhai this’ ‘Bhai that’. He would come to my husband’s shop and cry to him, complaining that she was disrespectful, and on top of that-- chee-chee!-- she, apparently, started an affair with an Italian film student who had gone with Joshim to their district town in Bangladesh to do a documentary about their wedding and life on returning here. Since then, becoming a heroine has gone to Madam’s head. People say their marriage is doomed, and she has threatened to walk out.” She sniffed.
Naureen looked away from her to the audience. The girl was looking at them, as if she knew they were talking about her. In fact, her gaze seemed to be particularly fixed on Naureen. She thought about all the oily platitudes she had planned to pour over her and all these ladies. In a notebook she had scribbled: 1-In education is a woman’s salvation? 2- Self confidence and inner strength, woman’s real weapons? 3. Patience, a woman’s true ornament? 4- Eleanor Roosevelt on domestic violence, “If anyone mistreats you it is because you give them permission to do so.”
And, perhaps, another quotation to end on a note of hope? Hadn’t she read something once about dreaming of bringing mountains low or making crooked places straight? Suddenly an image flashed in her mind. If Asma were here, Naureen would have said, Apa, remember that evening after which Aftaab asked father for your hand? We three were walking up the Lincoln Memorial’s steps, and you said that Martin Luther King had made his famous “I have a Dream” speech here, and had quoted passages from it?
Aftaab had looked at Asma admiringly as she recited. She had blushed saying, oh it was just that she had written a term paper about it, so it was all fresh in her mind. But he had gone quiet. Had the bastard realized then that she was too good for him, and would always be so? But what were the words that had stuck with Naureen? She googled it on her iphone.
“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight......From every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
She translated it into Bengali. While on the last line she smiled. ‘Freedom’ translated as ‘Mukti’: afterwards, she might ask the girl her name and say something encouraging if her name was Mukti. If t was ‘Mukta’ or pearl, she could still say some stuff about the oyster using the irritant to produce something of value, etc.
It was time for Naureen to face the audience. Perhaps because they were weary by now, somehow, her speech didn’t go very well. She could tell from the scraping of chairs and the hum of talk among the restive women. The translation, especially the last bit--“Beje uthuk Muktir jhonkaar”--sounded a bit forced. The applause was tepid and when Naureen looked at the audience, the girl seemed to look at her with disdainful eyes.
While the closing remarks were being made, Naureen’s phone flashed a new message. It was from Asma: Friday not good. Have decided to give it another shot. Aftaab and I are going to Kolkata on Thursday. Chat on return.
The speakers were being led to a table with trays of tiny pizzas, samosas and other snacks. Naureen was not hungry and was feeling a headache coming on. She looked around among the milling ladies who came up to meet the speakers. Mukta or Mukti was not there.
On her way out with Putul, she brushed against someone. When the tall girl turned it was she. Naureen waited for her to speak. But the girl just turned around with, could it be, the hint of a smirk? Naureen felt like slapping her.