By Sohana Manzoor
“Did you hear about the arbitration?”
“No… what’s that?”
“So, you know nothing? Everybody’s talking about it.”
Reba raised her eyes from pages of her book and looked at the eager face staring at her. “Well, it takes place at least three times every month,” she observed complacently. “I don’t see why I should be interested in this particular one. Only last week there was a dispute between Keramot Chacha (Uncle) and his nephew on land.”
“This isn’t just any arbitration!” said an irritated Amina. “You’re so much into those precious books of yours that these days you barely notice the people around you.”
Closing the fat volume of test-papers in her hand with a thud, Reba looked at the young woman in front of her. She said as politely as she could, “Look, I’ve the HSC (Higher Secondary School Certificate) exam coming up. I’ve no time for gossip right now.”
“And then you’ll probably go to town to study at a big college and won’t remember any of us. You’ll be a hoity-toity miss and forget all about your friends in the village!”
“Wait a minute– what’s the matter with you? Why are you acting like this?”
“I’ve been noticing for months now that you don’t want to chat with me,” Amina was almost in tears. “Okay, so I’m not as educated as you, but didn’t we grow up together? And now you think you’re too good for us?”
Reba sat dumbfounded as a flustered Amina stormed out of her room, and then out of the house.
Reba’s mother entered the room with a kantha (embroidered cloth) in her hands while she muttered, “What’s with girls these days—I don’t understand. Women aren’t supposed to run like that.” She looked at her daughter critically. “How long will you sit like an owl inside the house? Go out and sit in the yard. Get some sunshine. You look like the grass under the stone.”
Reba sighed. Her mother still disapproved of her going to college. Even though she got a scholarship and also earned from tutoring local children, her mother could not accept it fully. She agreed because Reba’s elder brother supported her. But Reba knew that she needed to get out in the yard. If she did not, her mother would start whining.
She was not sure why, but these days she felt that she did not belong to this little village of Shokhipur anymore. Gossiping with Amina, Parul, Rasheda and the rest did not interest her as it did before. They were forever talking about marriage, men and other girls who they envied. At best, it was about visiting some distant relatives. They lived in such a beautiful village, but none of them ever looked at the beauty of the dark waters in the pond, or the distant trees that disappeared on the horizon. Reba sighed as she got up from the table wondering why she looked at things differently.
As she stood under the guava tree, Reba stared at the very pregnant black cow called Kali under the shade. Her mother had bought her three years back with loan from the Grameen (village) bank. Kali sat demurely while munching on the bounty of grass heaped in front of her. She stared back at Reba with big moist eyes. Reba remembered that there was a time she would get grass from the meadows with other girls. Parul and Rasheda still did that. Now-a-days, Amina was staying in the house mostly because she was about to be married. But Reba had stopped since she passed the SSC (Secondary School Certificate) with GPA 5. Her brother Rafiq had told her mother sternly that Reba should not waste time outside doing such menial work. She still helped her mother at home, but not with cutting grass or tending the mango grove. She walked past the cow shed and went to stroll by the little pond behind their house.
“Aray (Hey) Reba, how are things?” Reba stiffened at the sound of the male voice addressing her. “I don’t see you at all these days.”
Reba turned around to face the smiling young man. “I’m studying for the upcoming exams.”
“Ah, the exam! I forgot you’re appearing for the HSC. But tell me, what’s the point of studying so much? In the end, you’ll be a housewife, raising kids. Or worse, something like Moriom may happen if you don’t accept the ways of the village.”
Reba did not reply at once. Alam was Amina’s elder brother, and was neither better, nor worse than the other men of his age. Reba also knew that he had a crush on her. If she was like the other girls of her age, she might have harboured feelings for him too. But after she started going to college, she realized that there was another world waiting for her out there—a world where she could be more than a housewife, or a mother. It promised her an identity—of a teacher, or a doctor, or something she did not yet dare to dream of. She learnt from Jahan Apa (elder sister), her English teacher and Rehana Apa, the Economics teacher that girls could go a long way too. No, she did not want to be a film actress like some of her mates wanted, but she certainly wanted to go out there. However, Reba also knew that it would not be wise to voice those dreams. Her old friends and mates would not understand and would be derisive. Worse still, out of jealousy, they might even give a hand in turning her into a pariah.
The laughing face of Moriom surfaced in her mind; Moriom, who did so well at SSC and was aspiring to do better. But unlike Reba, Moriom was outspoken and had dared to stand against the community. Reba still often dreamt of her. She laughed like nobody else in Shokhipur. It rang like bells; she did not bother to muffle the sound of her laughter like the others did. She attracted the eyes of Monir, the local hooligan and the son of Moinuddin Talukdar. Initially, Monir just disturbed Moriom with stupid things like cat calls. As Moriom ignored him pointedly, he started to follow her on way to school. Then Moriom complained to the village elders and they ordered that Monir to marry the girl.
Moriom was horrified and flatly refused to accept their solution. Monir and his family felt insulted and one summer night they took revenge by throwing acid on sleeping Moriom through the window. The piercing cry of the girl shattered the peaceful atmosphere of the tranquil night, but unfortunately, nobody dared to show compassion for Moriom and her family. She had refuted the local guardians; hence her family did not even dare to lodge a case with the police.
Reba still had nightmares of Moriom’s acid burnt body. She committed suicide after what they had done to her. The people of her locality were unforgiving toward women who aspired. Now-a-days, mothers cited the example of Moriom to other girls who dared to dream beyond their allotted sphere. But dreams had their own ways of manifesting.
Reba roused herself to focus on the gawking young man and forced herself to smile.
“Still I would like to pass the HSC exam. Wouldn’t it be great to be the first girl from our locality to pass the HSC?”
“Yes, but what will you do after that?”
Reba suddenly became cautious. She knew that whatever she said now was of tremendous importance. Alam would carry her words to others; others that would decide the fate of girls like her.
Suddenly, Reba turned coy. She started toying with her scarf and hummed a little. Then she looked up at Alam, fluttered her eye lashes, and said, “Well, I belong to this village, and I want to become a teacher at the primary school. That is if my future husband and in-laws permit.”
A slow grin started spreading on the young man’s face. “So, you don’t want to leave the village as Amina was saying?”
Reba felt a shiver down her spine. She feigned surprise, “What? Why would I do that? Did Amina really say so?”
Alam stammered, “Well… Amina said you have dreams… of going away…”
Reba sighed as she said, “You know, Alam bhai (brother), something is really going wrong with Amina these days. I just told her to leave me alone for some days as I have the big exam coming up. What’s the point of sitting for the exam if I don’t do well, eh? And she thinks I have dreams of going away… so bizarre!” Reba paused and pretended to think a little. Then she said, “Or may be, she’s just emotional these days as she herself will be going away after marriage.”
Alam also hurriedly agreed and turned around to leave. He was relieved that Reba was not planning to study further. Now he could safely assure Hasnat chacha and Sharif bhai (brother) that they need not worry. This girl was going nowhere. She certainly was not like Moriom. That Moriom was a witch. And it was good that she committed suicide rather than display her burnt face and figure around the village. Now if things went well, maybe next year he could propose through his mother for Reba’s hand. His family was quite well-off; better off than Reba’s at least, and they should not object. And it would be good to have an educated wife who could also bring some extra-income. He would not have to worry about the education of his children either. Occasionally, he would have to beat her up, of course, so that she did not go out of hand. But well, that’s the lot of all women, he thought as he walked toward the mosque. The arbitration would be held there, and he wondered what verdict they would pass on Saleha, the widow of the deceased Harun Miah.
When Reba came back home, she saw her mother and a few other elderly women going out together. Rahimon chachi (aunty) was in the middle of a sentence, “… exemplary punishment, I heard. She’s such a hussy! Can you imagine bearing a child out of wedlock?”
Ajefa chachi had just opened her mouth to utter something, but she stopped at seeing Reba. Reba’s mother said, “Reba’s here. Now I can go with you.”
Reba asked smiling, “So, where are you all off to? Are you visiting Amina’s house? I heard that her in-laws will be coming tonight.”
The women looked at each other and muttered, “Yes, we will go there too. But first we pay a visit to the mosque.”
After they left Reba went to her table by the window and opened her math workbook. But she was unmindful. Something did not feel right. She wondered what was going on. To the mosque? Women of the village did not usually go to the mosque… unless, she sat up straight. Arbitration, Amina was saying something about an arbitration. And the chachis were talking about some hussy.
Reba stood up. Which ‘hussy’ was it this time? They also called Moriom a ‘hussy’.
Reba took out a long, heavy scarf and covered herself before heading out. She closed the front door carefully and took the path by the pond. By the time she reached the open space near the mosque, it was late afternoon. All the people of the village had gathered there. Reba stepped closer to see a huddled figure lying near the pole. She could tell it was a human, but that is all she could tell.
A whimper rose from a woman who was standing near-by. Reba recognised her as Saleha’s sister, Sakina.
“Please let her go… she is half dead already.”
“She should have thought of that before bearing that sin on her body,” someone snapped.
And Reba noticed that a man stood near the pole. He wore a punjabee (a long shirt like a kurta) and his sleeves were rolled up. He had a cane in his hand. Reba went mute; so, they were caning the poor woman?
She could hear the Moulavi (learned Muslim teacher) speaking: “Such is the punishment of a woman who dares to go against the words of Allah. Eighty strokes of cane. If she dies in the process, so be it.”
There was no air in Reba’s lungs. She knew who the man was. It was Monir, the one responsible for Moriom’s death. He was also the father of Saleha’s unborn child. She had seen him lingering near her hut in the dark. The crowd moved and Reba saw another Moriom. Not burnt, but beaten and bloodied, lying unconscious on the ground.
“What about the man who thrust that sin upon the woman? Shouldn’t he be punished?” someone screamed. And to her horror Reba realized that it was her very own voice that had uttered the words.
Reba felt dizzy and suddenly darkness descended on her.
The sunlight was playing among the leaves of the star fruit tree in front of Jahan Apa’s house. Reba sat thoughtfully by the window. Her HSC results had been announced, and even though she had missed GPA 5 this time, she has done very well indeed. Jahan Apa was very hopeful that she would go a long way. Reba was still in a dream-like stance. With Moriom’s face in her memory, she had to accommodate yet another, the face of Saleha. Saleha had died after giving birth to a lump of flesh. The merciless caning at the shalish (arbritration) had taken its toll on her. Reba had taken ill after voicing her anger and protest. And it was only when she got better that she was able to inform her teachers at college, who contacted the police. They had come and rounded up half the men of the village. A case was filed by Saleha’s family at the urging of some good and encouraging souls, and Monir ended up in the police lock-up.
Yes, Reba was very brave, but her brother was afraid for her. So, she had been staying with Jahan Apa ever since. It was a very different atmosphere. Jahan Apa’s father was a lawyer and he had all the right connections. He praised Reba’s spirit as did Riasat Bhai, Jahan Apa’s husband. Reba wondered about her future. What did it hold for her? Another Monir? Another Alam at best? But then she did not have to think of a man, did she? She could just live her life and do things for girls like herself too.
Reba took a deep breath and looked at the flickering light among the leaves of the star fruit tree and prayed that she could do something for all the Moriums and Salehas, and do something before they were killed by the petrifying society, they lived in.
Sohana Manzoor is an associate professor of English at the University of Liberal Arts, Bangladesh. She completed a PhD in English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale before returning to Bangladesh to teach. Her short stories, translations, nonfiction, and book reviews have been published in Six Seasons Review, Bengal Lights, The Daily Star, Dhaka Tribune, and New Age.
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