From the Delta: Anthology of Bangladeshi writers
Contributed by: Tulip Chowdhury
Shanti opened her eyes. The soft light of the early morning crept into the room through the creaks of the wooden doors and windows of her bedroom. She shared the small room with her three siblings. They were her sisters and she was the eldest. Being the eldest was like a milestone in every passing moment in her life. It meant she was responsible for taking care of her siblings and look after the home as well. The love and responsibility often held irony in her roles as “boro meye” ( eldest daughter). Even then, upon waking she remembered that the rice left from yesterday would be sufficient to feed her three sisters and that would mean she would have to go without food. It also reminded her every day that they were the ones going to school, and she as the eldest had to drop out to help her mother who was often down with health complications.
As Shanti stretched her limbs she could already hear her grandmother, Mayabibi’s voice calling her.
“Shanti, why don’t you get up and get some food ready for your father? I cannot move with this aching joints.” She was speaking from one of the three small rooms that made the whole cottage,
The bedrooms were separated with bamboo mats and so Shanti could also hear her father moving around, getting ready for the day’s work. He coughed occasionally and she could hear his footsteps too. It was a busy time for her father, Tara Mia. The harvesting had begun and he was bringing in crops for the village headman. Outside the kutum pakhi, a kind of yellow bird that is supposed to be bringing in messages of new relations with their songs started to call out with its clear notes. Shanti jumped down from the wooden cot in which she was sleeping. The bird seemed to suddenly add wings to her feet. Shanti’s world was full of dreams with hopes of getting married. She was fifteen and that was a late stage age in the village to be married. Often villagers pointed out to her mother,
“You should get rid of that Shanti for she will soon be too old to get a groom. You have other daughters to think of.”
Shanti had wanted to continue school but for her family’s needs she had given into staying home. Marriage seems to be a road to a new life, a saver to the monotonous household chores. Responsibilities had burdened her life. But the heart, young and hopeful gave away to praying and daydreaming about a better life that could come with wedding bells.
‘Maybe today this bird is calling for some wedding in this house.’ Shanti whispered to herself as she carefully put on her repaired sandals and sauntered out of the room. ‘Wedding bells ringing would mean me for I’s he eldest of the sisters.’ Maybe she could find a husband at last. Her parents were really anxious to have her married.
She opened the front door of their small cottage and was just in time to see a yellow bird flying overhead. Her heart started to sing. Those yellow birds were supposed to be the harbingers of marriages. And, to think that she had seen it with her own eyes! Hopes built castles in her mind. Shanti picked up the earthen pitcher from the porch and took it upon her waist. She would have to fetch water from the nearby pond before getting the food ready. But she quickly poured out the last of the water from the pitcher for her father and left his food and water beside the earthen stove. Her father would come to seek his food in the small, mud-walled kitchen that had been built near the main cottage.
It was very early in the morning. Only her grandmother was up for the early prayers. There was a pot of puffed rice in her grandmother’s room. After morning prayers the old lady had some of that and so she ate much later after the sun was high in the sky. Shanti took a quick look to make sure that her mother, Heeraboti, was not up yet. Her mother was had not been in the best of her health and had been sleeping late. If her mother still in bed that would mean that the day’s chores would have to be looked after by her, cooking, cleaning and feeding. When her mother felt better she usually handled the cooking.
‘Oh’, thought Shanti, ‘I would have to return quickly to give food to the sisters before they go off to school’
Walking on the narrow path that led to the pond, she quickened her steps. The earth on the path was wet and a little slippery with the morning dew. She noticed that the grasses were holding dewdrops on their tips and the fields looked hazy with the fog. Her hair, loose from the knot she had made earlier, swayed from side to side as she walked. She had left her sandals back, walking barefoot was better. Her slender body moved gracefully with each step. Shanti’s youthful face held a natural freshness that comes with the early spring of life. Her steps were light but one could have seen that her eyes were dreamy as the song of the kutum pakhi echoed in her ears. Watching some girls walking to school, she thought of the days when she herself used to go to the school. She had attended the school until she was ten years old. But then her mother had said that she must learn to take care of the family because she would soon have to be married off and besides she needed help to take care of the home. Her father, though a farmer was more in tune with the modern times and had insisted that she continue to go to the school since primary education was free for girls. But her mother was more interested in the marriage and was afraid that further schooling might make her over qualified in the eyes of the villagers. Anything that can be a hindrance to her daughter’s marriage could not be allowed and so Shanti stopped going to the school.
As she walked, Shanti was aware of the coolness of the morning for autumn had set in. The monsoon had passed and the days were getting cooler. The mornings whispered of the coming cold days. The sky no longer got dark with rain clouds. She looked up at the blue sky full of white fleecy clouds. Some grasses had grown in the middle of the path and seeing them laden with dew, she stopped and let her bare feet sweep over them. The touch was heavenly. But there was another reason behind the act. There was a saying that if young girls touch the early dew then they get married quickly. A secret smile spread over her face. The village girls start getting married even before they reach puberty. And now fifteen, going on to sixteen, a year or more and she would lose hope of getting married at all. This was more so because her father could never be able to afford to give the dowry. The amount of dowry would get bigger as she aged. That left her chances of marriage to her looks and the qualities she possessed. The matchmaker, Habib Mia had already started saying,
“ Tara Mia, your daughter is older and so demand for her is less. You can attract the grooms with a good dowry.”
Whenever a marriage proposal came it’s always packaged with dowry. Shanti’s father asked the matchmaker,
“What about those government rules against dowry? My daughter can read and write after going to school and can even take up a job with garment factories. She is good looking and a good girl.”
Habib Mia shook his head as if annoyed by the man’s ignorance and said,
“Don’t you know the government rules are on papers mostly? In our village the rules are the age old ones. Though these days mobile culture has girls and boys having relations and getting married but those are the waylaid people. Good girls get married according to their parents’ wishes.”
At such times Shanti’s father felt better off without a mobile phone. He could not afford to buy one any way and it kept his girls safer from getting into “lines”, as mobile dating was called. If he had any hopes of buying a mobile phone he put them shelved them up. Shanti had been nearby when her father was talking with Habib Mia and she saw his humble frame go softer. His gentle eyes looked confused and she wondered how her father, nearly sixty years old was going to manage his family with four daughters to marry off. Shanti’s mother was his second wife. The first wife had died along with the first baby on childbirth.
With all these thoughts crowding into her head, walking on, Shanti was thinking that she would have to take care of her face a little more, maybe put on some turmeric to improve her complexion. When any possible groom’s family came to see her it was the face that first drew attention, the face had to be pleasing at least. Shanti was not exactly a village belle, but she was beautiful with a good, curved figure. She was not fair, was not very tall, nor could she boast of fine sharp features. But her face held a serenity that captivated one’s eyes. Her dark complexion was enlivened by the huge black eyes that seem to penetrate right through you. The eyes were shaped perfectly and the long lashes gave them a mysterious look. The pert nose gave set above the wide generous mouth gave her face a look of decisiveness. The lips seemed to be set in a perpetual smile. Her hair, long and thick reached well below her waist. Her countenance had an image of goodness and trustworthiness. Shanti, meaning ‘peace’ seemed to reflect the image of her name.
But alas, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. And the prospective grooms who had approached Shanti’s father seemed to fail to notice the beauty of the girl. They often said,
“Your daughter is dark complexioned and it is fair skin that everyone likes.”
Besides, they seemed to think that she was not worth taking as a wife without dowry that they demanded. The subject of her marriage was a debated question between her parents. Her mother imploring her father to agree to dowry and sell some land and have Shanti married off. If the eldest one did not find a husband how would they look for the younger two daughters?
Her father would smile at Shanti whenever her mother started on the subject and say,
“There is the Almighty and I am sure He will help me if I am on the right path.”
Shanti was always on lookout for signs all around her, signs that would show her the way to getting a family of her own. The villagers held many beliefs and superstitions about girls’ marriages. Shanti, growing up in the village followed them rigorously. She never ate boiled eggs or never wore a new sari without washing it. She avoided eating food that had garlic in it. These were just a few of the hundred other things one abided by if one wanted to catch a good husband and catch him early without being pointed out as “boyoshko” (aged) even if that meant aging sixteen or seventeen.
Nearing the pond, she could hear the village men calling out to each other as they got ready for the day’s work. Walking barefoot she loved the feel of the cool earth under her steps. The path was damp from the morning dew. She hurried thinking that the morning had caught up with too much of daydreaming. Getting into the water of the pond to fill her pitcher, she was still in a happy mood as the sight of the kutum pakhi flying overhead came back to her repeatedly.
A number of village women were around the pond .Most of them were there to fetch water. But some were bathing though the water was quite cold. It was the family rule to wash oneself before entering the kitchen if they had shared a love night with their spouses. But these bathing women had a look of pride in their faces. Male dominating society gave them an air of superiority when they could relay the message that their men had been with them. They felt honored by the intimacy.
Cheerful gossips of other women were mingled with the splashing sound of the water. Two small girls, heedless to their mother’s warnings took to jumping into the water from the large rock near the pond. Their splashes caused waves in the water and added to the din and bustle around. The pond with its rows of coconut trees all around it looked lovely as the sunrays glistened on the trees. The sun was climbing higher in the sky and Shanti hastened with her pitcher, walking into the water.
As Shanti filled her pitcher with water, her hair became loose and fell all around her face. Leaving the pitcher floating on the water for a while she hastened to tie up her hair into a coil at the neck. A middle- aged woman who was sitting nearby spoke up,
“Shanti, can’t you even braid your hair? If you go about with loose hair early in the morning, no one is ever going to marry you.”
“I will keep my hair tied from now on.” Shanti replied softly.
It was considered to be good to listen to what the elders say. Though in her mind she began to wonder about what really was going to bring a husband for her? Tied up hair, the yellow bird, looks or fate? Shanti puzzled over the possibilities and she felt rather sad. Why did she have to be a burden to her parents? Why didn’t the wedding bells ring for her?
When she went back with the water to the cottage the sun was already up and everyone was moving around. Her mother too sat on the porch, slowly brushing her teeth. Her sisters were getting ready for their school. Did they eat their cold rice? Shanti wondered. That was usual breakfast for them. They cooked rice only once a day and so the mornings started with panta bhat .( cooked rice soaked in water)
She went to the earthen stove and started the fire, her mother would need some hot water to drink for her cough. She stared at the fire and softly mumbled to herself,
“Everyone has something to do for his or her own self. But look at me, I just wait for a husband…..everyday my life is the same…waiting and waiting.” In the headman’s house she sometimes watched cinemas and other programs on the television. She had watched stories of village women getting educated and becoming independent.
“But my parents would never allow me to go back to school. Cinemas are fairy tales, they cannot be true for me….” she told herself.
Up above on the branch of the mango tree the yellow bird called again. Shanti’s heart filled with hope. Caught between poverty and ignorance, girls like Shanti just hoped for miracles. Their miracle being a husband who would brand them as “married”
Shanti needed some firewood and so she got up to go to the nearby piled wood. As she did so a small blue butterfly settled on her shoulder. Butterflies are supposed to be the symbols of love. And right then the ‘kutum pakhi’ sang out very sweet notes from the jackfruit tree again. Shanti felt as if her world held a new promise for the day. Maybe, finally the miracle will take place. Shanti smiled to herself. Indeed was this all true? The day stretched ahead but it held some secrets for her, secrets that kindled fire somewhere deep in the soul. Maybe all her beliefs will make the wedding bells ring but happiness? Do all those come in the same package? Her mother’s voice woke her from her reverie,
“Shanti, can you please bring some hot water for me?”
Somehow, Shanti was not so sure. Birds, butterflies, duties: where was life heading? She went on kindling the fire so as to warm the water as soon as possible. Her heart danced with anticipations, another day began with countless dreams. But she was having a new dream that day. Maybe she could ask her father to go to try her luck at the garment sector and earn a living. That would be opening new roads, she might find a husband on her own. She had watched cinemas where people fall in love. And if she was earning she would be helping her family as well. Just then a house lizard called out from the cottage and seemed to say, “theek, theek, theek…” ( Right, right, right…).
Villagers have a firm belief in the fact that house lizards can read into people’s thoughts. And so Shanti began her new dreams with the biggest one looming ahead. When will all dreams come true? Her delicately shaped fingers, dirty with ashes and dirt, put more woods into the earthen stove and the flames danced to new life. In the fire Shanti saw butterflies, kutum pakhi and house lizards, they were all calling her.
Daughter of Freedom