|Art: Meher Ali|
I have only seen four goats when the pain in my throat returns. It’s psychosomatic, the doctors say, but it bothers me all the same. I select the fattest goat and pay a rickshaw driver to take it home. The salesman says camels are worth more points with god and tries to drag me deeper into the haat, but I resist. I’m not religious. I’m only there to silence Tasli, my nagging wife. This goat will exasperate her no end, because she’s expecting a cow. I’d like to see her ride this baby into heaven!
Perhaps I’ll leave her before next Eid. Then I’ll never have to do bloody korbani again.
Tasli greets me at the door when I return home. She places a cup of tea before me, then bursts into tears. ‘Shamali’s teacher called,’ she wails. I don’t feel like comforting her. Shamali’s not my daughter, not my problem. Still, I sit and I listen, like the husband I’m expected to be. ‘Shamali’s been expelled,’ Tasli says, as if it’s the end of the world.
Shamali has always been a delinquent. Ever since her parents got divorced. I suspect she’s into drugs. For a moment I’m concerned, but it subsides. The thing is, I’m tired of drama. I just want some peace and quiet. After ten years of marriage, I’ve had quite enough. I almost tell Tasli right then and there that I’m done with being her beast of burden, but I don’t. Instead, I ask, ‘Where is Shamali?’
‘At Asif’s,’ Tasli explains. ‘Don’t be too hard on her.’
I’ve never been hard on Shamali, that’s the problem. She’s spoilt rotten. I doubt she’s upset about being expelled, she’s probably celebrating. The girl’s a duffer. Tasli will have to support her till she’s married and I’ll have to pay for the extravagant wedding. Of course that marriage won’t last – Shamali is a shrew. Not only is Tasli trapped with Shamali for the rest of her living days, I am too, if I don’t leave them both.
‘Shamali needs a father figure,’ insists Tasli. ‘Please, you’ll talk to her?’
I nod resentfully. Tasli doesn’t like confrontations. Neither do I, but I’ve been selected. I’m the sacrificial lamb. I finish my tea and head downstairs to Asif’s apartment.
The maid answers the door and lets me into the dark apartment. I suspect Asif is Shamali’s boyfriend, but she hasn’t told us as much. My eyes adjust to the gloom as the maid leads me into the living room. A small TV set is playing a Bangla movie, but the colour setting is off kilter, so it’s all a painful hue of blue. An old hag is lying on a couch and Shamali is rubbing oil on her forehead. Asif is crouched on the floor by Shamali’s side, like a lovesick puppy.
Shamali doesn’t seem surprised to see me. She motions to the spot between her and Asif, and the maid hurries to place a small stool for me to sit on.
The old crone, it turns out, is Asif’s sick grandmother. Shamali introduces me as her father, not her stepfather, something she does at times, when she’s in the mood.
Grandma asks me in a croak, ‘Do you know what it’s like to have a pain in your head all day?’
I say no, because I don’t feel like explaining the throbbing pain in my throat. There’s a love scene on TV; a fat actress beckoning her lover in a downpour of rain. I can’t help but wonder why we’re still stuck with these old-fashioned plot lines. Everything stagnates in Bangladesh.
‘It started last Eid,’ says Asif’s grandmother. The skin around her face has come loose, as if she’s slipped into the skin of a larger, plumper person. She wears it like an oversized jacket. I notice for the first time that the skin on my arms is loose too. I catch Asif staring at my arms. I awkwardly fold them in front of my chest.
‘Last Eid I didn’t do korbani,’ she continues, as though that were the deciding factor of her fate. ‘God is punishing me!’ she says violently.
‘Shhh, nani’, says Asif. ‘The pain only started last month. The doctor said it’s a sinus problem.’
Shamali gives Asif a dirty look that I’m forced to witness since I’m sitting between them.
‘Nani, it’s not too late to offer a sacrifice now,’ Shamali says, quite wisely. ‘Should Asif get you a cow for korbani tomorrow?’
Grandma’s wrinkled face relaxes. ‘Your daughter is an angel,’ she says to me. She has not taken her eyes off me the whole while. It’s as if no one else is in the room.
I nod. I’m getting to be good at nodding.
‘She’s a healer,’ explains the octogenarian. ‘There is magic in her fingertips.’
‘No nani, it’s just the Tiger Balm,’ says Shamali with a blush, crinkling her nose. It reminds me of the time when she was a girl. She was exceptionally cute. It’s unbelievable how fast she’s grown up.
‘She is an angel,’ nani repeats to me. ‘You don’t know it, but she is.’
The conversation stalls. Asif fidgets. The last thing I need is a lecture from a geriatric. I wonder how to admonish Shamali for her latest indiscretions at school. She seems at ease, though. The serenity on her face calms me down. Perhaps I’ll let her mother handle the situation.
‘Come, let’s go,’ Shamali says to me. ‘Nani, I’ll be back. Asif will get you a cow tomorrow.’ Shamali is confident and commanding. Her face is delicate, like her mother’s, but her mannerisms are different. She acts as though she rules the world, whereas her mother plays the victim.
Nani pats Shamali’s hands and gives me a strange look that I cannot decipher. As we step out of the room, Shamali explains it to me. ‘She likes you. She wants you to visit again.’
For some reason I feel like I am the child and Shamali is the parent, instructing me to respect my elders.
We are climbing up to our flat, when Shamali asks if I want a cigarette. We have never smoked together. I am torn between the morality of smoking with my 15-year-old stepdaughter and my own intense desire for a smoke.
She laughs. ‘It’s not a big deal.’
I notice she’s wearing the small, gold Allahu emblem I picked up for her last year.
The rooftop is windy. I suck on my cigarette, in no mood to philosophise. I think hard and manage to come up with: ‘Education is important.’
‘I know you’re mad with me,’ says Shamali. ‘I told ammu I don’t want to study accounting. This isn’t the sixteenth century. Why should I study something I abhor?’
I agree with her, so I nod.
‘When papa died,’ says Shamali, ‘I realised I had a knack. I could make him feel better, a little at least. I don’t know how, but I could.’ She looks at me, hopeful. I don’t give her the reassurance she wants. My face is cold and stony. ‘All the patients liked me,’ she continues. ‘I’ve decided to be a healer.’
‘A doctor?’ I grunt.
‘No, a healer.’ She looks at me like I’m old-fashioned.
‘That’s not a real profession,’ I argue, playing the role she’s pushed me into.
‘Jesus was a healer,’ she spits out.
‘Jesus was a carpenter.’ I don’t know where I’m going with this. I’m annoyed that Tasli forced me into having this conversation. ‘Besides, we’re Muslims.’
‘Maybe I’ll study counselling, or reiki, or something like that. Not medical science, though, that’s boring. There’s a lot to be learnt outside of textbooks.’
This sounds like teenage dreaming. ‘You need a solid professional degree.’
‘I knew you wouldn’t understand,’ she says. Now her face is cold. She stubs her cigarette out and heads back to our flat. The conversation is over and I’ve gotten nowhere. I wonder what I’ll tell Tasli.
The next morning is festive, despite the concerns looming over us. Tasli wakes up early and begins preparing the morning feast. I have delegated the task of slitting the goat’s throat to my driver, so I’m free for the morning. Two of Shamali’s friends come over for breakfast. I wonder why. Don’t they have families? Shamali introduces them. Their names are Sarah and Faria. They say ‘Salaam alaikum uncle,’ in unison. Then all the maids, the driver and the cook, offer me their salaams. I know they’re just after tips. The pain in my throat makes me cranky.
Tasli has set the table with her best china. She has a dozen items laid out, including beef, mutton, chicken roast, parathas, pilau and numerous variations of shemai. I heap a greedy portion of mutton on my plate. One of Shamali’s friends is pretty, the other is fat. I wonder if they find me attractive. Shamali asks about the plan for the day, though we all know the routine by heart.
‘Jaan, first you have to take meat to choto nana’s,’ Tasli instructs me. ‘He hasn’t been well since he fell down last month,’ she explains.
‘Then go to choto phupu and boro phupu.’
I nod, concentrating on the mutton. I feel a rumbling in my stomach. For a moment it makes me nauseous, then it works its way up and erupts as a loud burp. I say a polite ‘Excuse me’, but I catch the disgusted look on Shamali’s pretty friend’s face. The plump friend is sympathetic, she offers me a smile, as though to say she forgives me because I am elderly. I begin to see myself as they see me.
I ponder this new identity. I’m not upset, just perplexed, perhaps a bit disillusioned, but I handle it with grace. I focus on my food so no one will notice how much thought has gone into the aftermath of my burp. I’ve got a nice juicy bone that I don’t take my eyes off of. I’ve sucked out most of the marrow, but I’m chewing it to get the last bits of taste into my mouth. I am almost done when everything begins to fall apart.
I’m not sure what’s happening, but suddenly I can’t breathe. I try to cough and my eyes water. I realise I am choking, there’s a piece of bone lodged in my throat. I gasp for air. I feel Tasli slap me on the back. I hear the maids scream. Someone says we should call the ambulance. Someone tries to feed me water. My head spins, and later I learn that my face had turned blue.
As the floor comes crashing towards my face, I wonder if it’s the end. I feel sad, not ready to leave, nostalgic for life.
I lose consciousness soon after and wake up to find myself in a hospital bed. Tasli, Shamali and Asif are by my side. I can’t tell how long I’ve been out. I feel dazed, but comfortable. The pain in my throat is gone.
‘Jaan, are you ok?’ asks Tasli. She’s been crying. Her face is glazed with concern and love. She strokes my arm affectionately.
‘You swallowed a big bone, Mr Rahman,’ explains Asif. ‘Shamali saved your life.’ He pats Shamali on the back like he’s an older uncle and not her secret boyfriend.
‘She did the Heimlich manoeuvre, jaan,’ Tasli explains, eyes brimming with pride.
Shamali’s blushing like a wild flower. ‘It’s easy,’ she says with a shrug.
I can see on their faces, they’re relieved I’m okay. I try to sit up and I feel a throbbing pain in my spine. Heimlich manoeuvre, my foot. The girl’s gone and broken my back. Now she’s convinced she’s some sort of saint. I’ll never hear the end of this.
~ Shazia Omar is a social psychologist, writer and development worker in Dhaka.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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