That day I could hear me breathe.
People were swirling all around me in the smell of rosewater, incense, and aatar.
And they were talking to me, and not talking to me. They were staring at me, and trying not to stare at me.
I looked up. It’s someone I should know. I knew…But I couldn’t remember.
-Are you reading any Dua?
I shook my head. The woman went away in hurry, came back and slipped a piece of paper in my hand. “Here! This ayat will help you understand!”, she said looking rather pitiful.
Wa ja_ at sakratul mauti bil haq za_lika ma_ kunta minhu tahid
And the stupor of death will come in truth; that is what you were trying to escape.
Which was ironic.
I kept reading it though, looking down at my lap like an obedient student.
The noise of the whole house felt both loud and distant. Like I was drowning and breathing at the same time. Drowning, but I couldn’t reach the pit. Breathing, because what else do you do? That’s the rule of the living. You have to breathe. Don’t forget to breathe. Breathe so much that no longer it feels like an action. Breathe without even acknowledging that you are breathing.
It was also someone I should’ve known.
-Do you have the Tasbi? Okay here, take mine! Oh you poor child! Don’t break down! It’s all a big test from Allah!
She hugged me tight. She smelled like flesh.
-When’s your sister coming?
-Oh you just sit tight! Oh you poor child! I’ve talked to your older brother. He’ll be here soon too.
Then she lowered her voice in a loud whisper, -But I didn’t tell him everything you know…It’s better this way. He’ll come and sit and then we’ll see what to say…Oh you just sit here and call Allah!
It’s better this way…
We’ll see what to say…
Yes Polash vai would’ve known her.
The sofa felt like a quicksand.
Sitting on a quicksand I felt the weight of the Tasbi and the parchment that sat on my lap.
Why the house is filled with unknown people with known voices today?
-Tonny apu wear this orna…here take it. Give me yours… Okay let me…
She carefully untangled my red orna and wrapped me in a white one.
Oh! the red doesn’t go with today.
I didn’t go back to the hostel. I was in the office, the call came, then I was in a bus, then here…
I, with all my skills of predicting people, didn’t even for a single moment think this would ever happen.
And I knew her for 27 years.
What would Mridul apa think?
What would Polash vai think?
Omar’s grief wouldn’t be like them that I knew.
Omar, our youngest, when remotely sad in his childhood, would stop talking to everybody except Ma.
He and Ma always had a special bond. They would have these conversations in low voices even in the middle of a family gathering. And they would look…not happy…but so content!
And I would look at Ma and Omar and feel so happy, not even joining in I would find a piece of their peace.
Polash vai would get devilishly jealous though.
If get the chance, Polash vai would always beat Omar up. Being brothers, naturally they were allocated the same room. And for the times of the year he would be with us, Omar would be terrified. Polash vai kept torturing him for those period of times, for wearing his T-shirt, for messing up the table, for talking, for not talking…
Ma would never try to break-up the fights between them.
Omar would show up those nights, in Mridul apa and my room, and ask not particularly facing anyone, like he was asking permission from the room itself, “Can I sleep here tonight?”
Mridul apa would gesture in annoyance, bring out the bedsheet we had for him, and roll it in between our beds.
Mridul apa would stand up for Omar, go to Polash vai’s room and confront him. But soon she and we realized, though he is two years younger than Mridul apa, Polash vai holds the higher position.
“It’s his fault. One slap and like you’ve hit a flower! What boys have ladies skin? He will thank me later for making a man out of him!”
Meanwhile, Omar sat in the flowery bedsheet, and ate aachar quietly. I usually would be in my bed, lying, reading Feluda or something, and postponing the must needed study for the tests at school. And I would look at his fair face with a red hand painted on it, with one blazing red ear under his messy brownish-black hair. I would get this overwhelming sadness for my brother!
My eyes would swell up.
He’s exactly like Ma! What would he do in this world? How quiet he was…how delicate, how utterly unfit for the world at large.
I would sit up, legs hanging by him, and would wrap his little head in my arms.
He would tolerate my hugs and kisses with moderate revolt.
I would ask “Why don’t you ask Ma to do something about it?” And Omar would assess the situation like a little wise man, “The world is like that.” And I couldn’t understand.
“Ma said to figure out myself what to do about it.” And tossing his head a little, the little wise man would smile, remembering the scheme he brewed with his Ma.
Our mother died. On April 23. Boishakh 9.
“Died” is an oversimplification though.
That day, Mridul apa arrived like a broken woman.
She only had left this house, our childhood home, two days ago. With Ma standing by the door, she got up in a rickshaw at dawn to go to the rail-station. She looked back, and Ma was looking like a girl.
She stumbled and howled through the crowd to me with her swollen belly, and two confused wide eyed kids beside her. The minute she sat beside me on the quicksand, she stopped crying.
Me, office-ready, with mismatched orna and kurta.
She, her hairs undone, tired jaded cheeks, swollen eyes and swollen belly. She was having a hard time breathing with an alive person inside, and a dead one outside.
Her kids stood side by side a little further, quite shaken seeing their mother like that.
Mridul apa sensed that something more than mourning was there in people’s eyes that surrounded us.
Cautious, and almost ugly, curious glances.
Fifteen days later she gave birth to her second daughter. When people in her in-law’s family lovingly and quite emotionally gave permission to her that she can name her daughter after her mother’s name, she and I both looked at them as though they were mad!
Being her daughter, at least that much came into us, that you really don’t indulge in cheap gestures.
Actually our mother’s name was Tonima.
But everyone called her Tonu, not a loving nickname, just a utilitarian shortcut.
It’s the anniversary of her death. And I still don’t know if we are going to see each other.
I called Polash vai this morning and he didn’t even try to hide the irritation in his voice.
“We are not doing anything. Do you want to give people another chance to get together and pass snide remarks? It’s already enough! I’ll pray and will arrange a meal plan in a madrasa. I hope you will not miss Namaz today. Pray for her.”
I said okay and nothing else. Not even that I was talking about “us” getting together, not inviting a bunch of people to feast on grief. We the Us. The people that she brought into this world.
The Polash vai who one afternoon when he hadn’t yet gone away, discovered that Ma’s name has Ma at the end! We were amazed! And Ma laughed her beautiful laugh…
I wonder if Polash vai breaks down anymore…
When Mridul apa got “happily” married to the guy that mainly Polash vai chose, getting into the groom’s car, she desperately searched for any of us other than Polash vai and abba.
I was wearing my red frock that came with fairy sleeves, and made no attempt to reach her. I stood by the crowd and watched her. I don’t know where Omar was, didn’t see him the whole day. Ma didn’t come out of the community center. She was just sitting in an empty community center, tired.
Polash vai held Mridul apa, and suddenly shocking everyone cried out! And the wave of crowd moved in admiration to see the ideal example of a loving brother.
And Polash vai sensing the emotions of people, like a good politician, gave the perfect pitch of a cry. A brother giving away his sister.
I think his first cry was a genuine one. The wedding was, after all, his vision. He did all the work. He spent all the money. And one could cry to a vision well executed.
I was disgusted though. During his sobs, he stole these little glances sideways, to see people watching or not.
It felt so obscene.
I felt bad for her.
Though the months before that held a different scenario.
I felt really annoyed at Mridul apa’s nonstop rambling of how the guy saw hundreds of prospected brides and didn’t find anyone to choose, and how he, the moment saw Mridul apa, made the decision that this was it. The search has ended.
That night I was overwhelmed with joy to have the whole room to myself. But couldn’t sleep. Mridul apa’s scent was there.
I went to the kitchen on tiptoes like million times before to make tea. Except Mridul apa wasn’t there to scold me and later sip a little cha from my cup saying, “ Late night cha-s are not good for your skin Tonu.” In midnights, she would call me by mother’s nickname and we would giggle and chat…
That night in the dark, alone in our room, with cha in my hand, I was startled to death when Ma switched on the light.
She sat on Mridul apa’s bed and looked at me sharply.
I could make out she was crying. The skin beneath her eyes trembling.
She said, “I am glad that you are not beautiful like your sister.” And walked out.
I have caught her many times like that. That she was crying. Her face was not build to hide things. Her eyes would get puffy, tip of the nose red. Like Omar.
Omar’s lips would curl up in sadness whenever he felt like crying.
And he would look so beautiful!
Yes Mridul apa is beautiful. Or rather was beautiful. Now-a-days you can’t tell.
But Mridul apa’s beauty was not Ma beauty, not Omar beauty.
I and Polash vai, on the other hand, look exactly the same. We carry our father’s features.
We had a strange Ma.
Or maybe she was exactly what a human being is supposed to be, and the world around was strange.
Anyway, all of us, in our own times, figured that out. That all Ma-s are not like this.
Omar though, knew from birth, and smiled his little wise man smile.
He accepted the little room that Ma kept only for herself and no-one was welcomed in. Not forbidden, because she didn’t own the house. Not welcomed, because she, at least, earned that much.
No she actually bought the little room from Abba. She sewed these beautiful Nakshi Katha-s, with forests in them, sold those door to door bringing shame to the rich khandan of her in-laws houses, to the unknown faces. She made Abba sign off the papers citing the room belonged to her.
Omar never wanted to sneak in that room. Even the toddler Omar understood, his mother the woman needed that place only to be hers.
The three of us, on the other hand, tried endlessly to creep in.
We were the visionaries of the New World who wouldn’t let go even a little piece of land and let the native be.
Polash vai once unlocked the door, brought his mini trucks, and cricket gears to the room. And when Ma arrived from the bazar, he announced his things also he will keep there from now on, besides Ma’s things.
Ma was so furious… Every one of us froze, even toddler Omar. Because we had never seen her angry. She didn’t outburst normally.
She wasn’t particularly furious at any of us. She stared straight and rumbled and vibrated in something more than rage. Not particularly facing anyone, she talked on. Almost like she was addressing the house itself.
How it denied…denied…denied…
That was the last time I saw Polash vai cry. Cry like he really meant it.
That was a dozed off noon in December, come January Polash vai got admitted to Rajshahi Cadet College and had to leave all of us.
The day he had to leave, Ma wouldn’t let go off him. He was in his full uniform including an army style cap with feathers in it, a little general. Ma sitting on the mora clung on to him and wouldn’t let go.
The whole house was there, including those unknown faces.
Abba was waiting by the door, he would drop Polash vai off, and was really embarrassed to face his wife’s another fiasco.
She wasn’t crying. She wouldn’t talk. She just held on to him. And he was scared. He kept looking at his mother’s face. He was pale. His mother was too.
After that it all went downhill, or uphill, for him. I don’t know. He would come to the house a couple of times a year during short vacations, with sudden jumps to manhood, his skin all sun-burned, with strange deep marks of punishments he wouldn’t talk about. He would start beating up Omar, and go to fishing trips with Abba and our various uncles.
He joined the opposition party.
And Mridul apa grew more beautiful by the day. Her long hair flowing like sun-kissed wild streams, her figure achieving perfect womanhood. And she wouldn’t talk about anything else, except “beauty”, and various standards of it.
Among the thuds of our growing up, Ma grew even quieter.
She would cook. Eat. Sleep. Shower. Vanish in her room. And we wouldn’t know anything.
We had classes, tuition, friends, dreams…
We didn’t have time to notice.
The day our baby Omar went into University, she had this smile in her lips, this glee in her eyes, that somehow chocked me up. I don’t know why looking at her I felt like crying.
Her thin figure grew even thinner by then. Her strikingly fair skin, brownish black hair, her perfectly shaped ears and splashes of reds on the tip of her nose, cheeks, lobes of the ear, neck…it all felt so heartbreakingly beautiful.
With the same glee in his eyes, Omar hugged her. Which by then only he could do.
Yes, about my trip to her room. It was almost dusk. I found her room unlocked. She was sleeping in the other room with such an exhaustion.
It was a long stretched room, but not broad at all. You could almost touch the walls on one side. It felt more like a tunnel than a room.
The room had a window at the end with greyish-blue curtain. The room immediately looked very arcane. There was a sataranji spread in the length of the floor. On the left wall, there were these baby kites that hung, in all kinds of colors.
On the right side, there was a shelf that stretched with the room. It was filled with books, notebooks, an old cassette player, several cassettes, some with loose tapes coming out of them, old pens, dried leaves and buds and flowers, sea-shells, several stones in different shapes, wooden mirrors, and three crafted wooden boxes with three names on top of them.
Robi. Shourov. Natasha.
And my greedy heart leapt to see what was inside them.
Each contained little pieces of papers, neatly fold with old petals of flowers.
Robi would like to read Proust, and would assume such an untimely graveness in his appearance, that you have to laugh hiding your face. And he would get furious if he catches his Mother doing that.
Shourov would watch football all day. Breaking and smashing vases and glasses all around the house. And have an appetite of an elephant! He would teach his Ma all the rules of the game, and often would test her on that.
Natasha would be a real snob. She would always be on the top of her classes. And wouldn’t do anything for the sake of pleasing people. At first she wouldn’t have any friends. And she wouldn’t care, she chats with her Ma enough. Though deep within feel an unnamed longing. But eventually she would have a couple of amazing friends, and a lover to sink in.
I started to sob reading them…and I was jealous. Jealous at my three dead siblings. My three dead siblings who were not there yet there.
I could see that only them, Robi, Shourov, and Natasha, had their mother in full flesh.
That was her first three years of marriage. Three dead children.
She was 18, 19, 20.
And she had the whole rich khandani family behind her back, sneering, picking, grinding…and a nice man husband who fled the scenes and enjoyed people’s sympathy that casually adorned him.
That day at 10:00 am, sitting at my office desk, I got that call. “Tonny? Oh..Hi…um your mother died this morning.”
I reached home in a blur…
Entering the house I heard Abba crying loudly, and men and women talking over each other consoling him. “Oh god why did you make my life so hard? What did I do to deserve this?”
As he noticed me, he stopped and pulled me close, his tears were rubbing off on me. “Oh why did it happen Tonny? Why did your mother do this?”
I was puzzled and looked around in a daze. And one of the unknown faces cried out,
“Your mother committed suicide!”
Mridul apa got to know. And then Polash vai. And Omar.
Mridula apa kept shaking her head, and murmuring,“NoNoNoNoNoNoNononononononnononononono……”
Polash vai sat there. He looked like he did on his first day of going away to Cadet College. Scared. Pale.
His mother was pale too.
Omar…Our baby Omar couldn’t be found. He had his last exam of the first year final that day, so couldn’t be reached, at 4:00 pm he got out from the hall, opened his phone, and there it was, “ Ma died”. He came home, and somebody told him his Ma died willingly. And he couldn’t be found anymore.
We were led by people to see the face of our mother for the last time. Mridul apa and me. Not our brothers.
Ma died and therefore seized to be anyone’s mother. She was just a dead woman now.
Mridul apa stood afar from her, and no one could get her any close to the Khatia. She stopped shaking her head, she stared at the foot of the Khatia and murmured, “nonononono…”
She looked like a baby lying there, under her eyes were these blue veins I was so familiar with. So thin, you couldn’t make out her body. Peacefully sleeping.
I looked at her face, swirling in unfamiliar scents.
I needed to hold her hand, and couldn’t find it. All of her was wrapped in whites by unknown hands.
I needed to touch her.
I lifted the kafon from one side and saw her paper white hand with blue veins in them. Like rivers. Her left hand.
The unknown faces were with Mridul apa. So by the time they caught me doing the unholy uncovering, I was holding Ma’s stone cold hand, and gazed at it. The cloth of the Kafon had come undone by my probing, and there was these cuts on her hand. Still dripping.
Plink. Plink. Plink.
The sound felt thundering.
I was holding her hand in my palm, like you hold a feather.
I didn’t want to hurt her.
They came rushing though, covering her. Bit angry some people. Some mumbling not to put on more pain by seeing all of her. “ We know the pain that she caused you!”
I slipped right then, and my hand let go off her, and they hid her hand, and I slipped beside her, where she was bathed a couple of moments ago by unknown hands, and was still dripping.
Plink. Plink. Plink.
I sat there on the mud, not holding her hand. And unknown hands tried to pick me up, they rushed to have the spot to help a helpless girl whose mother so selfishly cut herself up.
I broke down for the first time, shouting, “ Get away from me! I don’t want to get up! I will not get up.” Still they wouldn’t listen. They cannot let go a chance to show mercy to a fallen.
Then Mridul apa shouted, “NoNoNoNoNononoononono…!”
She came and sat beside me. In her dripping.
They got a little quiet, and scared.
How normal will the children be of a madwoman?
And there were other shoutings going on that ought to be watched.
Omar had come back and was shouting,” I will see my mother! I will see my mother! Where is my mother? What did you do to my Ma?”
We heard Polash vai slapping him, shouting, begging…for him to stop.
They both stepped in the tent. Polash and Omar. Her two living sons.
Omar because he wanted to see what they did to his Ma.
Polash because he wanted to prevent that.
Then both of them stopped.
They looked at their mother. Sleeping. And two living sisters. Sitting on the mud.
And they…sat by the foot of the Khatia.
Now I wonder why everyone was so appalled and shocked. That she couldn’t understand , but should’ve, that if she waited a little more it could’ve happened naturally. Who commits suicide at the age of 55? Who commits suicide when death is so close by anyway?
She could’ve died a natural death, and spared her sons. Then they could’ve buried her with proper men-like mourning. Sons who had to carry her to the grave, while the daughters had the shelter of the house. The sons had to be out in the open, facing the world…the shame of having a 55 year old mother committing suicide.
In the name of her four surviving children, and three dead ones, she could’ve lived.
Abba now lives in the house alone. He didn’t want to remarry. He’s really not built for the family stuff. Plus one time doing it with a madwoman is enough.
The people of our neighborhood, if they find any of us, console saying at least we have a loving father.
He has become the Shahjahan of our little suburb. He didn’t have to build anything. He just has to live in the house she lived for thirty eight years.
I thought Polash vai would bring him to his home. But he said to my query that, “ A man needs his own house.”
I chuckled, ”And a woman needs just a room of her own!”
He was clearly annoyed, and regained back a silence that was, frankly, quite scary.
Polash vai had to grow up quickly. He had to take hold of the family, paying Abba’s failing business debt, and as such. He assumed the position of Man that was vacant in our family.
And he did good. His wife and kid smells of wealth.
And I think he gets to his cocoon of scary silence even more watching that we think Ma’s death was easier for him to recover from.
For which Polash vai never forgave her.
For which Omar never forgave himself.
Omar’s in Cox’s Bazar. I know his NGO job would let him if he wanted to come today. He didn’t.
I could almost see him by the ocean, in the sunset, walking… The sea breeze caressing his face, his brownish-black hair waving…and his lips curling up, and the skin beneath his eyes trembling.
Mridul apa too didn’t come… where would she? To the house that now Abba lives? The nice harmless man who silently drained out his wife’s dignity. Or to my one room condo? With her three kids and husband?
Besides the ache that’ll never heal, I have this anger today…Anger that we couldn’t be together, not even for this day…In the dusk, sitting in the cold of my room, I know how vital it was for us to get together. And say,” We know the pain that they caused you!”
Together. Sitting. Like we sat that day.
Two by the head. Two by the feet.
And Tonima sleeping in between.