When Shurjomukhi was young, her family lived in an asymmetrical house that held two parallel worlds. They resided in both, with their steps following a specific rhythm to walk in and out of these dual realities. The house was built during the British era and stood in an old part of Dhaka called Gandaria. It was originally called Grand Area, but the tongue of time had robbed the name of its luxury, turning it into gibberish.

In addition to first and second floors, Shurjomukhi’s house also had rooms on the one-and-a-half and two-and-a-half floors. The family’s heirlooms, memories and secrets were stored in those in-betweens. Shurjo’s bedroom was on floor one-and-a-half, a landing that had been made into a small room. Her parents slept on the second floor and grandparents on the first. Shurjo was put there because she could not decide which set of adults she wanted to spend her nights with. They had humoured her and come up with this in-between solution. This put Shurjo at an equal distance from the two couples, and closest to the treasures of her family’s past.

During the day, Shurjo’s family abided by the same world that most people lived in. After dark, when everyone was back home and the century-old wooden front gate had been locked, they switched to the other side.

Death did not exist on the evening side, and additional family members joined the dinner table. Shurjomukhi’s uncles, who had been martyred in the country’s liberation war, fought over the best piece of fish.

Her father comfortably slipped into the position of the middle child, freed of his daytime role as the head of the household, the sole living child of his parents. Shurjo was either completely ignored or overwhelmingly doted on by her visiting uncles, and her maternal grandmother, who usually showed up after dinner to chew her betel leaf in the company of Shurjo’s mother. In the day side of the world, she had killed herself by jumping into a well.

Shurjo’s family called the day side Known, and the evening one Unknown. They rarely asked questions in the evening side, comfortable with what they did not know. In the day side, however, everything had to be clear, precise, found out, even though it was ironically the more secretive of the two worlds.

Shurjomukhi was forbidden to speak about the Unknown side to her friends at school. This was a real inconvenience since the best stories were told in the evenings by those whom the Known world had declared dead. Shurjo wanted to talk about the games her family played, about the trunks they opened to look at old wedding sharis and sherwanis that could turn to dust on the palms of their hands at any moment. She knew more stories about war and migration than any of her classmates. She aced her history exams and could give impromptu speeches on the 1905 partition of Bengal, the 1947 partition of India and the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh.

Her teachers thought she was gifted, but Shurjo was only repeating the stories she had heard first-hand in the Unknown world. Unable to tell anyone how she knew so much, she stayed shut, becoming awkward, fidgety and unnaturally reserved.

But that was only in public. At home, Shurjo could not keep quiet. Her family encouraged her chattering, especially her paternal grandmother, Paru, who was very alive in both sides of the world. Her father too had vowed to love everything she did from before her birth. Babu adored Shurjo’s chatter so much that he recorded it. Everything, from her mediocre singing to her poetry recitals, was documented with a cassette player.

Shurjo’s mother, Bela, was always busy, either in the kitchen or with chores around the house. But late in the afternoons, when Bela had a few moments to spare, they combed and braided each other’s hair. Some afternoons, when Shurjo was still young enough to believe in a third world, Bela would convince her that a princess lived inside the diamond of her nose pin and that if Shurjo looked at it really carefully for a long time she would see her and her entire entourage. Bela would invariably doze off while Shurjo hovered over her face, hoping to spot the princess who lived inside the diamond glinting on her mother’s nose.

Shurjo’s paternal grandfather, Mir, was a man of few words, but when he spoke it was at a volume that startled everyone. Even after all these years, no one had got used to the thunderous surprise
of his voice. While this trait alienated him a little in both the sides, he did not shy away from the family gatherings. He joined the rest of them with a newspaper and peeled orange segments or bits
of grapefruit sprinkled with salt and pepper, half-listening to the conversations and half-listening to the evening news softly playing on the radio post-dinner.

The gatherings were a daily event, starting around 9 pm and going on till well after midnight. Nobody from Shurjo’s clan was a morning person although they had to drag themselves out of bed to get on with the day. Every evening, when people from the parallel world walked into the living room, they would resolve to wrap up and go to sleep at a decent hour. But time was lost in the Unknown world, floating and flowing in such a way that no one looked at the clock.

Excerpted with permission from Shurjo’s Clan, Iffat Nawaz, Penguin.