The hour before sunrise during mid December is a cold one in the small village of Hazratkandi, in Sylhet, East Bengal, India.

A thick fog hung over the Dooni whose waters had now dried down to a mere trickle. Wide patches of white saccharum rose like candy floss on the sandbanks near the waters but the fog hid them from view. Some distance away in the middle of the fields, now harvested and with the stumps of paddy pricking out from the earth like witchs’ claws, in a small thatch hut, Najma woke up earlier than usual. It was still dark inside, so she lit the kerosene lantern. Pulling the free end of her saree over her shoulders like a shawl, she woke her husband Habib as quietly as she could. “Get up!” she whispered. She took care not to wake Rafiq in that same room. Her tone was hushed but there was urgency in it. And strangely, no panic.

Najma had always been thus – quick and steady of decision. She didn’t know how to read or write, yet there was wisdom in her decisions. Habib always respected them. Despite her small stature, she was big in her confidence. Najma softly walked up to Rafiq’s bed and looked at him through the mosquito net to make sure he wasn’t disturbed. Rafiq was the son of a poor, distant relative. Najma and Habib took him in since he was about six years old, in the hope of having someone to take care of them in their old age.

“This girl will give birth any moment now,” she told her husband, motioning with her head towards the adjoining room.

“So, uh...?” Habib was still in a daze.

“So, hurry!” Najma held him by the arm and rushed him towards the door, handing him a shawl as they went, “Go!” she said, “Go fetch Sahina and her mother-in-law!”

“But it’s dark outside,” Habib said, opening the door and looking out into the foggy, pre-dawn darkness. The chill wind from the open fields rushed into the house through the door as soon as it was thrown open and Habib shivered.

“It’s cold too,” he said halting at the doorway, turning to look at his bed. “Drape that shawl. Quick. Don’t waste time. As for the darkness, it won’t remain for too long,” she replied sharply. Habib turned and looked at the lantern inside the house.

“I’ll need that. There’s only one in the house,” she said, almost pushing Habib out. “Now go! Hurry!” she said as she shut the door and went about making necessary arrangements before Sahina and her mother-in-law arrived. Starting a fire that early in the morning took time during the cold months when the firewood was always damp from dew on them. But she had to start one now to put the pot of water on the fire. She would need hot water. She readied old, clean clothes and a piece of sharp straw carefully picked from among the paddy stumps in the evening before. This, Sahina’s mother-in-law would need to cut the umbilical cord. Because Najma was getting ready for the birth of a child in her house. She and Habib had none. And all along, the moans and groans from the girl in the other room punctuated the silence of the house.

Soon the groans started getting louder. Rafiq, all of 13 years now, turned on the bed. The moans were reaching him. Back in the girl’s room, Najma asked her, “At least tell me your name.”

Since Habib and Najma brought the girl home the day before, she had neither spoken a word nor eaten a morsel. Habib and Najma were returning from the weekly market at Sutarkandi late that afternoon when they saw this girl, about to drop herself into the Sonai river, in an attempt to drown herself. She was heavy with child. The very instant Najma saw the distraught girl, she understood that it was a pregnancy gone all wrong. There she was, Najma Rahman, married to a doting husband for more than two decades now, still waiting and longing to bear a child of her own. And here was this youthful girl, carrying a love child she was loathed to give birth to. A crowd had gathered around the girl. Some tried to pull her down from the rickety bamboo railing of the narrow bridge but the girl scratched and tore at their clothes as she kept pulling herself away to drop into the waters below.

Some pleaded with her, others shouted. But the girl seemed oblivious to her surrounding, so hollow that she felt about everything around her and within her, despite the heaviness in her womb. Najma elbowed her way through the people and startling everyone there, gave a sharp slap to the girl. She swayed and fell back towards the people but Najma quickly and lovingly cradled her in her arms. Then searching for Habib in that crowd, said, “I’m taking her home.”

And now, lying in the small house of the childless couple Najma and Habib, writhing in an agony that wrapped her entire being, that very girl was about to give birth. Her moans were rising. Najma wiped away the drops of perspiration on her forehead.

“What made you take this step?” she asked her. The girl only turned her head the other way, towards the wall. Her moans came in more rapidly and now there were small spurts of cries as well in between the moans.

“Let me at least know your name,” Najma paused, then added, “before the other women arrive.” The girl now turned to look at Najma with a trace of suspicion in her eyes. Thinking that the girl got alarmed at the mention of other women, Najma added as an afterthought, “ assist me in delivering the child. Your child.” Najma turned to look once towards the door.

“What will I tell your child when it grows up and asks me?” Najma persisted, to try and know something, whatever, from her. About her. A fresh trickle of tear ran down the outer corner of her eye and flowed into her dishevelled hair. In the soft light of the lantern, Najma noticed how pale the girl looked. As if the last bit of colour from her face had drained out with that tear. Her limbs were otherwise lissom, and she seemed tall as compared with Najma’s own smallness. She wouldn’t be more than 22, Najma thought. Najma’s assumptions were usually right. But this once, she was never to know whether she was right.

Excerpted with permission from An Unfinished Search: One Lineage, in One Village, Through Three Nations, Rashmi Narzary, Pippa Rann Books and Media.