Today was her birthday; she had just turned forty. Perhaps that was why their mother had let her go out by herself. A couple of CNG three-wheelers drove by. Lovely almost hailed one but didn’t. She would just walk for a little while. Of course, if someone spotted her it would be reported back home.
That boy servant of theirs was tiny, but the devil incarnate. He was constantly badmouthing the two of them to Amma. Just as Lovely was thinking to herself, give me a chance and I’ll teach that imp such a lesson, he’ll go straight for the rest of his life, a three- wheeler stopped right beside her.
“Get in, apa. I’ll take you to Gausia.”
Lovely spun around. Just as she had thought.
The little devil was standing at a distance with all his teeth bared in a grin. Amma had sicced him on her. Lovely just wanted to die. She raised her hand, miming a slap to the boy, and climbed into the three-wheeler. It was now ten o’clock, and she had to be back before lunchtime.
She felt relieved. This was the first time that Amma hadn’t given her a specific time. She had only said, be back by lunchtime. Which meant that the next few hours, until two o’clock, belonged to her. She began praying that they wouldn’t get stuck in traffic. The three-wheeler was speeding ahead, as fast as it could.
What a surprise! By ten forty-five, Lovely was at Gausia. She climbed out of the three-wheeler, paid the fare, and stood for a few minutes like a fool. She couldn’t figure out what to do, which way to go. She could walk to Chandni Chowk or she could head towards Gausia Market. Suddenly, Lovely felt very lonely.
The man inside her head took this chance to speak up. His voice sounded broken, pleading: (“Apumoni, my sweet sister, apni emon keno bolen toh? Why are you like this? Come on, just buy some fabric, fast, and then let’s go pass the time by the Buriganga river. Just you and me.’)
No, Lovely wasn’t prepared to pay attention to the man inside her head right now.
She was going to shop as much as she wanted today. Then she would stand somewhere and eat some chotpoti, maybe drink a lassi; or maybe she wouldn’t.
Step by step, she moved towards Chandni Chowk. Because it was only a quarter to eleven, the usual woman-crushing crowds had not gathered yet. No worries; give it an hour and they would show up. The crowd was already pretty bad.
Today she had travelled somewhere all by herself. Lovely couldn’t remember the last time she had gone anywhere by herself. Had she ever gone anywhere by herself? She gave up. She felt annoyed at her own foolishness. Was she going to let these banal thoughts occupy her at this moment she had yearned for?
She entered a fabric store at random. The trouble was that she liked every single fabric she saw. Of course, no matter what fabric she chose, it wouldn’t suit her. There was already an aunty-like air about her. Who knew what had possessed her to show up at Chandni Chowk in these long braids. She must look like a clown. People were passing her by, for sure, but many stopped a few steps away and turned back to look her up and down.
A pair of untidy braids, the hem of her kameez trailing a handspan below her knees, scruffy eyebrows, a lost, dazed look in her eyes, the sweetness of her mien disappearing with desperate speed. Such a creature wasn’t spotted too often in the Dhaka markets. Here she stood waiting, holding a bolt of cloth for such a long time, yet even the salesman wasn’t paying any attention to her. Lovely’s eyes teared up.
“Hey, bhai, how much is this per yard? Hey, listen, bhai, please, listen ...”
“Which one? You’ve got a different fabric in each hand.”
“The red one.”
“A hundred and twenty takas.”
“Okay, give me two and a half yards of this, and matching fabric for the shalwar and the orna.”
“I can give you the shalwar, but you’ll have to buy the orna from a different shop. We don’t sell ornas unless they’re part of a set. How much fabric do you want for the shalwar?
“Two and a half yards.’
The salesman busied himself with measuring and cutting. What sort of customer came to shop at Chandni Chowk but didn’t bother to haggle? He gave her the once over as he cut the cloth to measure. She looked a little stupid.
“Here you go. I’m charging you one hundred and ten takas per yard. You didn’t haggle at all, so I’m giving you a small discount.’
Lovely paid and left the store. She didn’t even like red that much, why on earth had she bought it? Beauty liked red though. Beauty loved all the vivid colours. Lovely walked into a couple of other stores and walked right out. She didn’t feel like buying an orna now.
She would come back for the orna at some later date with their mother. That would make Amma happy. Farida Khanam was constantly trying to prove how useless the two of them were without her help. Lovely’s inability to buy an orna would be further proof of their uselessness. It could be assumed with some degree of certainty that she would not approve of the fabric. No matter what it was the sisters did in Farida Khanam’s absence, it was impossible to convince her that they had done anything right.
In her mind, Lovely flew back twenty-six years. The man inside her head gasped: (“Please, Apumoni, don’t rush like that. It makes me dizzy.”)
Although Lovely was three years older than Beauty, they were students in the same class. Lovely had been fourteen at the time. Farida had gone out, leaving her daughters in the custody of her husband, Mukhles shaheb. She was headed for Chowdhury Para, Khilgaon, where her older sister Rahela lived. The prospective marriage of Rahela’s second daughter, Ruma, was under discussion.
Farida wasn’t inclined to spend too much time at Rahela’s since she had left her daughters behind. She also had to stop and pick up some fresh produce on her way back. There were no vegetables in the house. All she could find in the kitchen before she left home were a couple of dried-up, dreary looking eggplants. Mukhles shaheb had been unwell for the last few days and had been unable to do the groceries. She had to buy vegetables as well as flour.
That morning she had barely managed to scrape together a dozen rutis for breakfast. Farida kept her brows furrowed the entire way as she sat inside the three-wheeler. She felt uneasy. She had to get back home as soon as she could.
Mukhles shaheb was burning up with fever. Before leaving the house, their mother had sternly instructed Lovely and Beauty not to make any noise. Their father was in bed with the covers drawn up over his head. His headache was killing him. Other than the three of them in the house, there was the old maidservant whom they called bua, and Sultana, the young maidservant. Sultana was about the same age as the two of them.
Sultana didn’t dare come anywhere near them when Farida Khanam was home. Their mother was very strict about that. Servants should know their place. There was no call to be extra friendly with them.
Lovely took some spring chicken soup to her father, and then settled down to play Snakes and Ladders with Beauty. She inevitably lost to her sister. There were some instances when Lovely had managed to win a game of Ludo. But with Snakes and Ladders, as soon as she sat down to play, she got swallowed by the snakes.
Beauty, of course, was an avid player. There was pleasure in witnessing Lovely’s game piece suffer snakebites and writhe its way down to the bottom of the board. Beauty grew bug-eyed with joy.
“Apa, do you want to go to the roof?’ asked Sultana.
“Shut up. Do you want to play Snakes and Ladders? Come, sit here,” said Lovely.
“No, I don’t want to play, I want to go to the roof,” said Sultana.
“What do you mean you want to go to the roof? How can you do that? The roof ’s locked,” Beauty said.
“No, it’s not,” Sultana reported, as if divulging a state secret.
“Bua will tell Amma,” Lovely said.
“Bua is asleep. She’s not going to wake up so soon,” Beauty said.
“Beauty, I’m warning you, don’t you dare. Amma told us not to go up there,” Lovely cautioned.
Excerpted with permission from Hellfire, Leesa Gazi, translated from the Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, Westland/Eka.