‘Yes, I’m helping her. Please try to understand, my love.’
I didn’t understand much about the baby’s father’s disappearance or how my mother could help. But I understood the crushed look on Lima’s face as she lay helpless on my narrow bed, recognised the humiliated contours of Faiza’s neck and shoulders when I snatched my dolls away and left her to play alone. They were both signs of shame, the same kind of shame I had felt before the pir, or standing on the red bench under the sun. Suddenly I knew exactly how Lima and Faiza felt – though I didn’t fully fathom the reasons behind those feelings. Suddenly I could see the tension roiling beneath the unmoving planes of their faces, could see right through to their ebbing spirits, trying hard to stay ashore. I started sharing my dolls with Faiza again, though she had noticeably less interest in them now, as if she knew that dolls merely replicated the futile structure of human relationships. Some afternoons, as we played on the floor, Faiza and I could hear Lima sobbing softly, though we both pretended not to hear.
Lima extricated herself from our lives as suddenly as she had appeared. Even Uncle Karim didn’t know exactly what happened to her. He had heard different rumours through friends about Lima giving birth to a boy and moving to a different city, while others thought her husband might have returned to her.
I can still visualise her defenceless form on my bed; I can still feel the weight of her deprecation. And I can taste her shame as I nurse my own.
One summer Amol hung a nylon rope swing from the rungs in the partial ceiling of our veranda. Naveen and I swayed for hours and stared out at the sprawling soccer field across from our house. Sometimes I noticed a young man standing at the edge of the field, staring in the direction of our house. When I told Naveen, she smiled shyly and told me not to look at him. Around that time, Moinul came to live with us.
Moinul, a distant relative from my grandmother’s town, was disturbingly tall, but more disturbing was the rumour we’d heard about him from our mother. Moinul, who openly claimed to hate his entire family, had threatened to kill his youngest sister by slitting her veins in her sleep. Naturally, we were afraid of him, but my mother reassured us that Moinul was trying to find work in Dhaka and would only stay with us for a short while. At first he seemed harmless. When he wasn’t out looking for ‘work’ (though what kind of work he was suited for, none of us knew), he sat on the steps outside, smoked and munched on betel leaves. If he saw any of us nearby, he’d pull out some ancient-looking candy from his shirt pocket and offer them to us. One day he grabbed my shoulders and squeezed my cheeks hard. He told me that I was growing as plump as a football and that soon he would have to carry my ovoid form to the soccer field for a few kicks. My feelings towards him solidified into resentment.
One afternoon Moinul came home early. I was on the swing and Naveen leaned over the balustrade, staring out at the soccer field. Mother must have come up behind Naveen and noticed the chap she was gazing at. I didn’t know it, but my parents had already discovered the suggestive exchange of looks and smiles between Naveen and the soccer-field chap. When questioned in private, Naveen had revealed that the boy had sent her some sort of love note which, of course, she had not kept. My father was furious enough to pick up a slipper and whack Naveen’s twelve-year-old face. He threatened to discipline her much more severely if she continued the misconduct.
So when Mother caught Naveen making eyes with the same boy again, her maternal heart grew apprehensive with dark thoughts. Why was Naveen being so reckless? What if the chap was a street hooligan? There were stories in the newspapers of young girls being abducted, raped, or defaced with acid.
In a moment of well-meaning weakness – but
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh