by Nadeem Zaman
"She's ten years old today, and she's as dumb as the day she was born."
Purnima's Ma slashed the comb through the tangles in her daughter's hair. The swipes were as consistently vicious as they had been as far back as Purnima could remember.
"If it isn't evil, what is it? Evil inside her head. Let me see, stop slouching. On top of being an idiot, you'll be a crooked wife to some crippled beggar someday. That's what's left to send me to my early grave."
Purnima held her head erect, her neck steeled. It was her birthday. She was ten. Two digits. It was a day to be extra strong. Ma's fingers twisted and coiled her hair into a tight bun. As a final measure of safety, Ma gave the bun a light smack. Thankfully, it held.
"Just the perfect thing to seal my death. Allah, what did I do in another life that you're killing me so horribly in this one? We will tackle it once and for all today."
Purnima could sense Aba on the other side of the bed squinting myopically and trying to mask his disinterest by re-lacing a pair of shoes that was already perfectly laced. When he was out of cigarettes, which he was now to his great dismay, there was no way of making an escape under guise of not wanting to smoke near Purnima. If he left the room now, Ma would shout for the entire building to hear what a louse he was. Until recently a security guard at a newly built apartment complex in upscale Gulshan—making more money than he would supposedly ever know in ten lifetimes, according to Ma's confirmed estimation—he had been fired for falling asleep drunk on the job. Aba had lost three jobs in the last year. Ma would go through all of it, in detail, and like those public broadcasts blared over megaphones from the backs of trucks, there was no way of shutting it off.
"If today doesn't work—turn around and face me—if today doesn't work," she waved the comb in Purnima's face like a cane about to be used on her violently, "Allah help daughter and father both. Ignore me, both of you, all you want. We'll see."
Purnima saw Aba steal a glance at her, his sad eyes glinting yellow and crimson betel-juice-stained teeth baring a victorious grin. Ma's eyes were quick to follow Purnima's to Aba. She twisted around like a towel being wrung dry.
"You think it's so funny, do you?" Ma hissed at Aba. He snapped back to the shoes. "Listen to me, Purnima's Aba, if this girl's head isn't fixed once and for all today, I will hold you responsible for a lot more than being a drunken shame on my head."
Aba mumbled something, which Purnima heard as though he had whispered it in her ear, "So much to fix around here in one life."
"What did you say?" Ma sprang to her feet, in the process flinging Purnima against the wooden dresser behind her. "Allah, a more shameless man I haven't seen!" She turned again on Purnima. "I just dressed you and combed your hair, and you're brushing up against that dirty dresser, why? Just to spite me. Stand up straight. If you do one thing out of place in the presence of Maulana Azam, girl, you haven't seen hell. I've had enough." She turned her glowering eyes again at Aba. "With a man right there, I have to be the one to go flag a rickshaw. Allah, what did I ever do to you? I'd better find you standing right there when I get back."
"Come here," Aba whispered. "What do you want for your birthday, my child?" Purnima saw his forced smile, unlike the one just a few minutes ago. It was weak, not a smile at all. It was defeat trying to undo itself. "Tell me, tell me. I'll make the phone call to the right people immediately." The smell of inactivity wafted out of him. Ripe clothes, unwashed mouth, the prickly stubble flecked with grey hairs that winked like dim stars.
Purnima shook her head. "No need to phone. Then you'll have to go to see the monster upstairs."
"Oho, my child, he's just an old man, a good neighbour that is helpful enough to let everyone in the building use his phone. That's called kindness. Even if he is a crotchety bugger." Aba laughed. Phlegm gurgled in his chest. "You're an old lady now, don't you feel crotchety?"
"No, I'm not old, and I never will be." She cupped his chin. "Old people get white hairs, see? Everywhere. But I don't have any." She was careful to point at her hair without upsetting Ma's work.
"Purnima, come out here right now," Ma called from the front.
"Listen," Aba clasped her hands in his. "Whatever that fraud mullah says, whatever Ma makes you listen to, listen like a grown up. In one ear, out the other. Understood? But don't disobey Ma. OK?"
"Now go, go, before Ma's hands reach through the walls and grab you like the Ear-Cutting Hag's Mother."
Purnima clamped both hands over her mouth to stifle laughter at the mention of the fabled witch whose job it was to cut off the ears of children that refused to listen to their parents.
"Come here," said Aba. His hands pressed on either side of her face. He drew her in and kissed the top of her head. "May you have many more birthdays and live a hundred years."
"And Boro Apa will come to me again and again for one hundred years!" said Purnima.
Aba's eyes turned glassy. He blinked furiously to fight the tears. His jagged-toothed smile joined the struggle.
"Yes, she will, in her own way, she will" he whispered. "We have to let her rest." He held a finger to his thin, chapped lips.
As the rickshaw pedalled away, Ma brought out one of her shawls, which Purnima had not seen her stow into her handbag. She wasn't surprised. Ma spread the shawl over Purnima's arms and hands. It was black, woollen and embroidered with peacock-eye feathers, whose small, turquoise and blue pupils stared up at Purnima like an army of stunned eyes. They were supposed to be protectors, but looked to Purnima like accusers. The shawl absorbed the sun's heat and burnt her skin. The prickly wool made her forearms and hands itch.
"On top of everything you won't also be a darkie," said Ma. "You will be rid of this evil in your head and get a good husband. It's only because of my brother and his generosity that we have a roof over our heads. Your father is a nothing. A sin. Remember that."
Screaming, blaring, limping, startling, cursing, begging, Dhaka city passed by. Buses and trucks belched black smoke. Shiny new cars, growling older models and mud-splattered and paint-chipped tuk-tuks went neck-in-neck for inches of space that a mosquito couldn't squeeze through. The rickshaw puller wielded his three-wheeled machine as expertly as a weapon, weaving in and out between vehicles, avoiding potholes, rolling slowly over puddles, passing cars stuck perpetually in stalled traffic. When it was time for him to stop, he released the handles and sat back on his uncomfortable looking triangle of a seat like a king. Purnima wanted to touch his skin. It was sun-scorched, shiny with sweat. He was thin, but muscles popped and shifted under his skin, as if small animals were slithering around just beneath the surface. She peeked one little finger out into the sun to catch the rays that would give her skin the sheen of his. Ma didn't notice.
Outside Maulana Azam's gate, Ma snatched the cover off Purnima's hand. She dug out a crumpled ten-taka note, which she dropped on the rickshaw puller's hand like she was putting garbage into a trashcan, making absolutely certain not to be touched by the brimming filth.
"Ten only? From Old Dhaka to here?" the rickshaw puller queried.
"If it's not enough, throw it away. I don't have time to fuss with you people today," Ma snapped, grabbing Purnima's arm. "When beggars and rickshaw pullers question you, it's Allah's curse happening on earth."
The house was palatial, a massive white box squatting in the centre of the grounds with a wraparound verandah on the first floor and corresponding balconies on the second and third. The uniformed guard ushered them into a paved driveway, lined with potted plants, running alongside a manicured lawn. The property was shaded by jackfruit trees that encircled the perimetre of the house and hung over the grounds like thick, black clouds. Under them were lines of skinny lemon trees. At the other end of the driveway, Purnima noticed the bright red flare of flowers on the sprawling branches of a krishnochura tree jutting up from behind the garage. Three identical looking white cars were in each of the garages, their backs turned like uninterested hosts.
The guard pointed Ma toward the entrance where visitors were received, but Ma ignored him. Clutching Purnima's arm, she made her haughty march toward the house, as though she had arrived at last to claim a right of birth.
Inside the first room, it was suddenly freezing compared to the heat outside. Purnima saw no fans whirling above nor heard the hum of air conditioners. A chill shook her. It was dark, even after her eyes had adjusted, and all she could make out was a silhouette behind a large desk facing them. Down a hallway behind the silhouette was an open door letting in daylight, further backlighting the room they were in. Ma salaamed the silhouette, as she simultaneously realised her head was uncovered and pulled the achol of her sari over her hair.
The silhouette politely returned the salaam. "He's very busy today," he said, almost singing, like he was trying to woo Purnima's Ma.
"I wrote to him a while ago, and he said I should come soon," Ma explained, her tone soft, imploring, powerless. "My family has been coming to him for years. He knows me." Ma, familiar as she was with the house, was already making her way around the desk tugging Purnima's arm. Purnima caught the silhouette's face in a flash, as she had all the faces from the moving rickshaw. He was young, fair-skinned, with dimples poking into his chin as he pursed his lips at Ma's audacity.
"Wait outside with the rest," he said, in a final attempt to preserve his authority.
The stairwell was bright from the tube lights glaring down from the ceiling. Purnima and Ma could barely make it onto the landing of the second floor because of the line of people. Men, women and children all stood surprisingly still and quiet—even the babies cradled in their parents' arms seemed shocked silent by their guardians' enforced reverence. Ma lifted Purnima and went past everyone, which inspired a momentary storm of whispered outrage. On the balcony, there were more people, everywhere. Despite the balcony being open and airy, the smell of incense and rosewater was suffocating.
Ma's knowledge of the house was so incredible that, without joining the brooding leagues of devotees on the balcony, she looped around to the other side, where there was no one. She dropped Purnima to her feet, giving the rest of Purnima's body a jolt that went all the way to her head.
"Make one move, and I'll chop off your legs, you hear," said Ma. She lubed her thumb with spit and wiped a spot of butter from Purnima's chin. "When I tell to wash after breakfast, I'm not talking to hear my own voice, you imbecile girl. Do I have to watch you every second? What will happen to you in your husband's house …? Now stay right here. I will call for you when Maulana Azam is ready to give you his blessing."
Aba's words played back in Purnima's head. "Whatever that fraud mullah says …"
There was a second door on this side of the balcony that led to the same room from which emanated the incense and rosewater that had made Purnima's head reel when they'd first entered the balcony. For a lifetime, she stood where Ma had planted her. The silence around her deepened. With all the trees around, there wasn't even a crow to be heard. Here and there birds twittered, leaves ruffled. The city, though just outside, was another ten lifetimes away from this house. Purnima saw that the door was only three, maybe four steps away. She lifted onto the balls of her feet, measuring each step with the stealth of a burglar until she was at the threshold. She took cover to one side and peeked in.
Ma, in her bright yellow sari, was a heap near a small dais about halfway between the two doors. That room alone could have swallowed the entire flat in which Purnima, Ma and Aba lived. Purnima concentrated her eyes on the figure on the dais. She saw a big-bellied, flabby mountain covered in a light green djellaba. Over the djellaba was a black vest entirely too small for the man's explosive chest and stomach. She could make out white pajamas. His folded legs were crushed underneath him, although he sat without seeming to feel a pinch of discomfort. His head narrowed as it neared the top, where it became almost conical. On top of the cone sat a black lambskin karakul cap, perfectly positioned to lean to one side. One of his eyes wanted constantly to go to sleep. It fluttered when he spoke but otherwise didn't seem to bother him. His wrists were relaxed on his knees. Between thumb and finger of his right hand was the noose of his prayer beads, which he was constantly counting.
Besides Ma, Purnima counted two other people on the opposite end of the room, a young man and woman, sitting on the floor with ledgers as importantly as the boy downstairs had sat behind his desk. Purnima thought how important her Ma must be that, of all the people up and down the stairs and waiting on the balcony, she had the lone ear of Maulana Azam. She felt proud.
"Purnima, get in here," Ma commanded, without raising her voice above a respectable level, unlike it had ever been before in its demands for her daughter to appear before her.
Ma's eyes, along with those of the man and woman with the ledgers and Maulana Azam's fluttering one, tracked Purnima from the door to when she reached her mother's side. The room closed around her like a hand. Outside, daylight and the other devotees dimmed, grew quiet, until there was only the cryptic embrace of the room, and Ma's hand on her shoulder pressing her down to Maulana Azam's feet.
The Maulana groaned something unintelligible. His fingers brushed the top of Purnima's head. Purnima felt the bun unravel, and her hair cascade freely down her back.
"Straighten up and sit still," Ma pushed Purnima down until she felt the cold floor reach in through her clothes.
"I just don't know what to do," Ma complained. "She never talks, doesn't like school, sits like a deaf-dumb animal day and night. Nothing I say gets into her head. Who else but Shoitan himself could be planted in her head?" She had broken down into controlled tears.
The incense and rosewater smells were gone. Purnima strained to inhale the sweet odours that had clouded her head, to no avail. They had been replaced by a pungent aroma coming from an indeterminable source. The heady incense and rosewater, Purnima decided, was much better.
"She's ten years old today," Ma sniffled, "and still as brainless as though I'd hadn't given birth to her but instead some animal had."
Maulana Azam shifted. He leant to one side, rocked to the other, settling down again in exactly the same posture as before. The movement disturbed the air around him. Purnima's nose was assaulted by more of the new smell, issuing out of the holy man.
"Does she pray?" Maulana Azam asked Ma. His voice gurgled out of the depths of him, as if being stirred to life from a thick, stagnant pool of melted vocal cords.
"We used to pray, all of us, together," said Ma. "Before her older sister … left us …" Ma gasped, choked by a new surge of tears.
"Allah does what's best for us all," said the Maulana. "We don't question. We accept it as His mercy and His grace."
"They even have the same day of birth," Ma sobbed, "only three years apart. How is it that I begged Him every day she was ill and all I got in return was losing her?"
"We don't have the audacity to question," Maulana Azam said, quietly stern.
Ma suddenly grabbed Purnima and squeezed her against her body. "All I have left worth anything in my life is here."
Purnima wondered what it was, even as Ma's incredible embrace pushed the last puff of breath out of her.
"I'm no good for His mercies, I know," said Ma. "Forgive my arrogance." Keeping one arm around Purnima, Ma reached down and touched Maulana Azam's invisible feet. As he had done with Purnima, he brushed the top of Ma's sari-covered head.
"Pray. Ask forgiveness. And always be charitable. The true path to Allah is through giving to those less fortunate than you." After a pause, Maulana Azam asked about Aba. "Does your husband still put the devil's poison in his body?"
"I'm ashamed," was all Ma said in reply.
"All God's children can be healed. Pray. And give. The more you give, the higher in His esteem you will be."
"I will," said Ma. "Everything I have."
"Find peace through prayer. Go, my child, give your alms. Come here and give as often as you wish. The child will be well in Allah's own time."
Ma shuffled Purnima toward the back of the room where the young man and woman were seated. Purnima checked over her shoulder as Ma dealt with them. Already there were more people at the Maulana's feet. As they presented their individual cases for him to communicate to Allah, Purnima heard the holy man tell them to pray and give alms.
Watching Ma count money in two separate small stacks, one each for the woman and the man, while they wrote in their ledgers with fluid, identical movements of their hands, Purnima remembered her older sister, Jyotsna. Her name meant "moonbeams." When she was bedridden, she told Purnima every day that she would come back to her in moonbeams every year on their birthday.
Purnima wondered if the woman and man had written down Ma's name in their ledger so that when the time came for people to be inducted into heaven, she would have a place secured. That was where Ma said Boro Apa was, sometimes adding that that was where they would be together again, but as she made it sound, it would only be the two of them. Purnima wanted to add her name next to Ma's. She could then ride the moonbeams and surprise her sister instead.
"I always give, and I always will. Where is all this money going?" Ma lowered her voice, dipping her chin into her chest to maintain further confidentiality.
In reply, the man and woman stared at her as if Ma had spat in their faces. It was enough to set her back on track.
"Allah, forgive me," she said.
On the way home in the rickshaw, Ma did not bring out the cloth to protect Purnima's skin. She sat as still as Purnima had ever seen her. The sari was still over her head. Purnima thought how much like a bride she looked, even if her sari was yellow instead of red. She was demure, sad, voiceless. A coil of hair slipped down over her forehead like a glinting jhumro would hang from the centre of a bride's middle parting.
Aba was standing outside. He had found a cigarette, which he was pulling on with all the strength of his gangly, palm-tree frame. Even from a distance, Purnima could see the sunburst of pleasure on his face. Seeing their rickshaw approach he grinned, and Purnima immediately knew it was for her. As soon as Ma went inside, she would check with Aba to see if he had made the phone call about her gift from the kind monster's home upstairs, and then tell him the trick behind the holy man's magic.