"Porcelain," a story by Iftekhar Sayeed.
Farzana studied the cup as she waited for her husband. They had just got married and her marriage, at that moment, right after breakfast and the beginning of a new day, seemed as fragile as that piece of china.
“The bazaar was crowded today,” reported Asif as he raised his cup. He had gone shopping before breakfast. They shared that chore, taking turns irregularly. She hated having to deal with the butcher, though. “Look! The gatekeeper just popped two letters under the door.”
One of them had an English stamp on it; the other was local mail. She knit her brow, wondering who would write to her from England, as she handed him his letter.
“It’s from Karen!” she laughed. “She’s coming to Dhaka and wants to stay with us for nine months.”
Getting no response, she looked up. Something had clearly bothered him.
“What’s the matter?”
He finished reading, sipping his tea, before he spoke.
“It’s Chand Mia.”
She didn’t know who Chand Mia was. There were so many things she didn’t know about him.
“He’s had another bad harvest. Now he’s finished. I’ve known him since I was a boy.” He stared into the empty cup. “I wish I could help him.” He looked at her, then said, “He wants us to keep his boy. As a servant. What do you think?”
“We can’t afford it.” The firmness of her reply surprised her. Now she dared not take her eyes off the bare table-top.
He glanced at the letter again, and seemed to sigh. “Poor Chand Mia! He’s been with our family for — I don’t know how many years!”
She didn’t care. Her decision was irrevocable.
“Karen?” he inquired. “I think you told me about her.”
“She was my boss at the NGO.” Farzana brightened at the recollection, relieved with the change of subject.
“O yes! The lady from the No Good Organisation you used to work for!” She didn’t mind his bantering. It brought him closer to her. The first time he had referred to the NGO as an hermaphrodite organisation. The coarse Bengali word had startled her, but they had both had a laugh over that one. Later, he explained. These organisations were neither government nor private, but a bit of both – they were hermaphrodites! They had laughed even more.
“She wants to stay!” she repeated with a smile.
“We have an extra room. What’s the problem? I’ll write to my parents and tell them we have a guest. I’m sure it’ll be all right.”
Any secret misgivings she might have had that he would not respect her friend, and so herself, were dissipated by those reassuring words. She felt a calm happiness as she watched him do his tie – a ritual that he relished – and leave for the office.
The glow dissipated with the thought of Karen coming to stay. She looked anxiously around the flat; she didn’t mind it being so small – there were only two of them after all – but it was so barren! Everything stared at you – the doors, the table-top; there wasn’t a stitch of garment over anything. It had, of course, been partly deliberate. Asif’s income wasn’t much, and there wouldn’t be only two of them for long. The glow returned at the thought.
So it was with a touch of pride that she asked Karen to sit at the table, now covered with a checkered tablecloth, and have something to eat after her long journey.
“Well, you look good!” gushed Karen.
Farzana smiled and nodded. Her English was not good.
“David?” she managed to ask. David had been Karen’s partner in England while she was working in the villages with the girls.
Karen stopped smiling. She looked down. “It didn’t work out.”
Farzana was very unhappy for her friend. She wanted to know why, when it had been so simple for her. Everyone at the office had known they were going to get married.
“Tell me about Asif!” Karen raised a piece of parata to her mouth.
Farzana smiled, not knowing what to say. She giggled. Karen joined her.
“How did you meet?” asked Karen, impishly.
“Arranged,” muttered Farzana, raising her right hand towards her shoulder to indicate the presence of imaginary others who had been involved.
“I see.” Karen continued with her food for some time. Farzana knew instinctively that Karen was trying to hide her disappointment. This was the second disappointment Farzana had had in store for her. The first was the fact that she was not working anymore. She longed to be able to tell Karen that all she wanted in life was to be a mother and a wife and look after their home and their baby.
And then Karen pulled an envelope out of her bag.
“What?” Farzana, wide-eyed, opened it. “No, no, no, no, no....!” She shook her head vigorously while Karen shook hers firmly.
“Otherwise I’ll be leaving, Farzana.” And she stood up.
“No, no, no, no, no, no....!”
“Well?” inquired Karen, brows raised, chewing her food. “It’s one or the other!”
“Ok, Ok, Ok!”
Karen sat down and Farzana was grateful. She loved Karen. She remembered how the other girls used to make comments about Karen behind her back. They would be so nice to her, but in her absence they would remark that she was a loose woman living with a man she wasn’t married to, and that she looked like a plucked chicken with her short, brown hair cut like a man’s. Farzana would observe a severe silence during these proceedings.
“If I’d stayed for a few weeks, I wouldn’t have, Farzana. But since I’ll be staying nine months, I insist. Please!”
Farzana nodded. She felt relieved as well.
The presence of her friend had consequences for which she wasn’t prepared. She found herself avoiding certain things that Karen disliked. Whenever she and Asif would go out on weekends to visit friends or family, she would wear heavy make-up. She felt good when she wore make-up and a nice sari. However, she would sneak out of the door after Asif, calling out from behind the curtain over Karen’s door that she was going out and then leaving abruptly before Karen could get out and see her. And in her conversations with Karen she would scrupulously avoid any girlish talk of clothes or jewelry. Karen was a vegetarian and she would be very conscious of the difference in their diet at the table. She recalled how Karen had once seen a man shoot squirrels in a village – they tend to eat up the fruits of the villagers who had requested him to kill the pests – and that she had left the place in a hurry by jeep, driving herself and very fast. But when the thought one day flashed across her mind - should I become a vegetarian, too? – she swiftly revived memories of Eid-ul-Azha when she and her parents would sit together and eat the sacred, sacrificial meat, and she affirmed, A Mussulman can never become a vegetarian.
The money that Karen had given her went straight into the bank. She saved compulsively. After her wedding, she had bought nothing for herself. The jewelry and the cosmetics were wedding gifts. She wasn’t afraid of the future, but of people who helped in times of crisis. Her aunts had helped her father, a mere schoolteacher, with small loans as far back as she could remember. And in return, the family had had to endure small humiliations that left their indelible scars on Farzana. She admired her parents’ fortitude and her elder brother’s patience, but in her own family she was determined not to let the curse of dependence descend on them.
Now that she was out of the family, she knew that her younger brother would have to bear the double load of her relatives’ taunts. She was planning to have Amzad stay with her at the flat, but now that was impossible.
Karen came home one evening and laid out a newspaper on the table. A job offer at the NGO she was working at was circled in black. Farzana studied it nervously.
She shook her head. “Qualification no!”
“No problem,” Karen shook her head firmly. “I can get you in. It’s called nepotism.”
Farzana wore a blank expression.
“Helping friends and relatives. If I can get this job thanks to the British government’s tied aid, I think it’s only fair that you get this one.” She laughed, and Farzana laughed, without comprehension. Karen grew serious. “You can’t imagine how much I needed this job. I was without work for 11 months. I was beginning to give up. And when I heard about it, I jumped. The pay is pathetic, and if you hadn’t let me stay here I don’t know what I would have done.”
“But you give money ...,” protested Farzana.
“You think I could have got a place to stay at that price? You’ve done me a favour, and I want to do you a favour.”
Farzana wanted to say no, but found herself tilting her head slightly to one side. She could hardly breathe.
She was hoping that Asif would not let her work, but he was infuriatingly happy that she was getting a job. She didn’t understand Asif yet; it would take years. But already she knew that he tended to go along with other people’s plans. She wanted him to be the architect of their lives.
Now Farzana had to do the shopping without any alternation with Asif. They didn’t have a refrigerator; so if he shopped in the morning, the stuff would lie there and rot in the heat until Farzana got back from the office. Earlier, Farzana would often go out to the bazaar and enjoy the haggling in which she almost invariably won – except with the butcher. She couldn’t tell good beef from bad, and it was left to Asif to bring home quality cuts. That was all over, though, and she would pick up the groceries on her way back from the NGO, allow herself to be cheated in her hurry to get back, and start cooking as soon as she got home. She wanted everything ready for Asif when he got back late at night.
She received a derisory sum at the NGO. She still managed to squeeze some savings out of it, like water from a rock. Even that stopped when she had to enroll in an English language course sponsored by the NGO because she had to travel by auto-rickshaw, in place of the much cheaper trishaw. The reasons were time and distance. She had to leave office (they let her off a little early) and make her way to the language course, which was further away from her office. After class, it would be too late to take the slow trishaw home. It wasn’t safe either. She had to shop, get back and cook. A fridge would have made all the difference, but a fridge would have eaten up all her savings.
Things reached a sudden crisis. She came home and dumped the groceries in the kitchen. The daily cooking, hurry and anxiety compounded themselves into a bodily insurrection for rest. For just a few minutes, she thought, she would lie down; but woke to hear her husband yell, “Where’s dinner, Farzana?”
She glanced quickly at the clock on her way to the kitchen. It was 10:35. He had returned later than usual. He must be ravenous, she thought. Karen was eating out with friends that night. Usually, when she got back, Karen would be home or would turn up soon afterwards.
She heard the door bang shut. A few minutes later, Asif reentered with a loaf of bread. He was right. It would take too long to prepare a meal. They had bread and water for dinner.
The decision was taken by Asif. Before turning in, he announced that he would be going out next weekend and would come home with a fridge. Farzana was sleepless with misery and worry. She didn’t speak a word with Karen when she let her in. She pretended to be yawning.
Farzana waited for Asif’s finest moment of the day. He worked for an export-import agency as an accountant, and one of their foreign counterparts had taught him how to wear a tie. He treasured the encounter and recalled the experience when he donned his tie.
“Asif,” she called from behind his back as he stood before the mirror on the steel almirah.
“Uhm-hmmm,” came the pleasant hum.
“Asif, why don’t we...why don’t we keep Chand Mia’s son?”
“We could do that,” he replied absentmindedly.
“I mean,” she continued with caution,” instead of buying the fridge, we could keep the boy. We won’t have to take the money out of the bank then.”
“How do I look?” He turned round.
She nodded approval.
“That’s not a bad idea. I’ll think about it.”
Next weekend, Asif brought the boy from his village. His name was Shona Mia. When asked how old he was, he replied, “Ten”. He would continue to be ten another couple of years, and then he would be fifteen, then twenty. He had no idea how old he was.
Farzana was caught unawares. Although her life became more relaxed – Asif would shop in the morning and Shona Mia would help Farzana with the cutting and cleaning and the food would be ready before she left for office – their food consumption soared.
“Shona Mia eats enough for three people!” she complained to Asif in bed. “Especially the rice. I can’t keep track of the rice!”
Asif grinned and turned over the newspaper. “They do that the first few months. Then he’ll realise he’s not in the middle of a famine.” He put the paper down and looked into vacancy. “There’s so much poverty out there. You won’t believe it unless you see it!”
But she had seen it. After the wedding, she had stayed at her in-laws, as was the custom, and she had observed the rickety children who came to see the new bride. And Asif was right. After the first few weeks the boy moderated his diet. But that was not the end of her troubles.
Right after the boy arrived, Karen changed. Farzana could not connect the two events at first. Karen started washing her own plates, instead of letting the boy do it. She insisted on making her own tea. Finally her meals at home became infrequent and so did their conversations. Farzana made the connection when she was well into a workshop on child labour. It had never occurred to her before that keeping a boy to work at home was bad. She had felt sorry for the children who used to come to her parents’ house to work, but she had always known why they were there.
Her attitude to Shona Mia altered. So far she had tried to be as kind as possible, giving him whatever he wanted to eat, and overlooking his numerous shortcomings as a servant. Now she viciously picked on every one of them. The boy never blinked. He seemed to know what he was up against.
She had Chand Mia summoned on a weekday morning. She didn’t write to him; she called saying that Asif wanted to see him. That way what followed would be her word against Chand Mia’s – unless Asif trusted the storekeeper whose phone at the village they sometimes, on rare occasions, used to talk to Asif’s parents.
“Asif Bhaiya asked me to come?” Chand Mia referred to Asif as ‘brother’. Farzana found it pathetic and disgusting at the moment; an old man like him, with grey nearly all over his crown and most of his face, calling a young man ‘brother’!
“Yes.” She never looked up at him during the conversation. She gazed fixedly at the checkered tablecloth. Chand Mia stood at a respectful distance, while the boy stood behind her, framed in the kitchen door, expressionless.
“You have to take him back.”
“Has he been ill-mannered?” Chand Mia looked ferociously at his son. The latter contemplated the floor. “I’ll break every bone in his body!” He took a threatening step forward.
“No!” she shrieked. “He’s too stupid to do anything well.”
Chand Mia put his palms together, and said, “He’ll learn, Ma! Kindly give him a chance!” Now he was calling her ‘mother’. She loathed his poverty.
“I’ve given him many chances. He’s good for nothing. Take him home, and don’t ever let me see his face again.”
“Ma!” The voice grew softer, and then broke into sobs. “He’ll have nothing to eat back home. Here he gets something to eat. Ma! I’m begging you – have mercy!”
She heard him weep in silence. After perhaps an hour, or maybe ten minutes, father and son walked out of the door. She rose as though she had just been hit a heavy blow. Her faltering steps took her to the bedroom. She collapsed on the bed, and wept, and wept.
The fridge occupied one corner and the bed the other. Now she could cook twice or thrice a week and warm up their meals. Asif was happy. She had told him that Chand Mia came and took away his son without any explanation.
“Poor old man,” he remarked. “Must have missed his son badly. Best this way.”
“Yes,” concurred Farzana, and wished he’d struck her across the face; it would have hurt less.
Above all, Karen was happy, and her garrulous self again. Now it was Farzana who rarely spoke. She was careful not to be impolite with her guest whom she could no longer regard as a friend.
Asif began to notice changes in his wife. She no longer wore her bright saris, or the careful make-up. He guessed that the stress of losing all their savings was telling on her. That was how she used to put it; he would tell her they hadn’t ‘lost’ the money. It was there, in the corner of the bedroom, an asset.
Finally, the strain got to be so severe that she started throwing up. He bought her some sedatives to take at night. He didn’t know that she also took them during the day. At least the vomiting stopped, which was a relief.
But she became even more withdrawn. At night, while reading the newspaper, he would watch her out of the corners of his eyes, lying with her head on one outstretched arm. He would follow her gaze, and be startled at its object. She would watch a dead gecko being torn to pieces by an army of ants; a wounded cockroach making its way across the floor; a spider waiting patiently in its web. A smile, accompanied by a narrowing of the eye, would spirit its tenuous way across her face. And often the eye would narrow further and focus in the direction of Karen’s room.
He began to blame himself. There was an obvious link between Karen’s presence and Farzana’s depression. Why hadn’t he put his foot down, refused to let her stay for so long? After all, they both had families whom they could not invite over because of the guest. It had been an absurd sacrifice to make.
He had always known that he was only decisive when things came to a head. That incident over the meal of loaf-and-water proved it. Even at the office, he couldn’t help being nice to his colleagues and they took advantage of that. They would borrow small sums and never repay. Farzana had put a stop to that. And yet it should have been him, after their marriage, with a young wife to take care of. And then there had been the episode of his brother’s career. He had known all along that his brother wasn’t cut out for business. He was a literary sort, and belonged in a classroom. He didn’t warn him, and let the entire family, including his elder brother and his younger sister, encourage him to take on a hopeless enterprise. Poor Azam had nearly had a nervous breakdown before he put his foot down, daring to go even against his elder brother and his father. Now, Azam was happy teaching at the local village school. He was going to join a city college soon.
And of course he had nearly married the wrong woman. When the village matchmaker had pointed out to his father that Farzana’s family wasn’t well off and would not be able to afford a dowry, his father had promptly called off the marriage talks. Asif had gone along. And if he hadn’t seen her one day by the river in the city park with her friends, the wind lifting her hair and she rearranging her sari’s border which kept flying out of control, if he hadn’t seen her thus, he wouldn’t have rebelled against the old man and insisted on marrying no one but Farzana. Thank goodness for that wind and the river!
He made the discovery on a weekend. They had just finished breakfast, the three of them, in their now more silent relationship. It was understood by everyone that buying the fridge had caused Farzana a deep sense of loss, and that she would soon get over it. Farzana herself called her reaction, in her now expanded vocabulary, ‘silly’ and ‘ridicoolous’. That one would bring a laugh.
Farzana went into the kitchen to make tea, and Karen disappeared into her room. Asif was thinking of going out to the newspaper stand and getting a magazine, but he didn’t have change. He opened the almirah and looked inside Farzana’s bag.
Farzana dropped the cup as she entered. Asif was holding a piece of paper with a blank expression on his face. It was the positive report of the urine for pregnancy test.
She had had the abortion right after buying the fridge. Something inside her had militated against the idea of having a baby with an empty savings account. She talked to one of the girls at the office, and found, to her astonishment, that she had already had an abortion; the NGO did not grant maternity leave before the first year of work, so quite a few girls had abortions just to be able to earn a paid maternity leave after the first year.
Asif recovered from his stupor, and his expression changed to disfigured anger. He strode barefoot over the shards and hammered on Karen’s door. Farzana could hear nothing but the sound of crashing porcelain.
Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He has contributed to The Danforth Review, Axis of Logic, Enter Text, Postcolonial Text, Left Curve, Mobius, Erbacce, The Journal and other publications. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.
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