By Sohana Manzoor
From her fifth-floor apartment window Neera could see the roof-top of the three-storied building that stood at some distance. She looked at the sun-drenched houses in the winter noon and wondered listlessly if people still used such gigantic mosquito-curtains like the one drying on the roof of the next-door. It looked like some green magic net big enough to catch a genie. And what were in those jars? Pickles, perhaps? Or maybe guava jelly? The child in her heart gave a shout of glee and, for a moment, she thought she had a whiff of her grandmother’s guava jelly emanating from the kitchen. But her grandmother had died years ago, and the house where she had lived was gone too.
The large pre-Pakistan era house that was her Nanabari, her maternal grandfather’s home, had been given to developers some years ago. While Neera could understand the practical reasons, her heart cried incessantly at the loss. The cluster of coconut trees standing at the bedroom-window of Neera’s apartment often made her sadder than ever even though she also considered herself luckier than most people of Dhaka where it was difficult indeed to get a breath of fresh air. But at her Nanabari, there were four such coconut trees. Images from her childhood when her uncles and aunts had made watches and spectacles for her with the tough and shiny dark green coconut leaves stood out fresh in her mind.
A cooing sound distracted her from her reverie. Two slate-grey pigeons were sitting on the adjacent cornice of her window and they made the strange sound that seemed achingly familiar to Neera. She recalled the house where she had spent a significant amount of time of her life, the one with a pigeon-house on its roof-top. She tried to imitate them: “Wuc-wucum, wuc-wucum.” The red-eyed gray pigeon tilted its head to stare at her. It did not seem the least bit bothered by the young woman as it was quite used to seeing her at the window. Neera sighed and turned away; her gaze fell on herself in the long mirror. Time does fly fast. These still noons were both lovely and unsettling. She remembered the mid- afternoons from her childhood when everybody else would be taking their naps. Neera would slide away from her mother and tip-toe to the veranda. She would sit in one corner, would look up at the blue autumn-sky dotted with clouds like cotton-wool. But sometimes they turned into cotton-candies.
‘Are they edible?’ the child Neera would wonder.
The huge eucalyptus tree in the garden next to theirs seemed to beckon the child by waving its white limbs. To Neera, the branches with their pale leaves were like a call from some other world. A sudden waft of wind would blow, playing with her hair and Neera would tremble.
“Nee…ra…a…a!” Had her mother called? She would run to the bedroom door, but her mother was fast asleep. She would pause to stare at her mother who looked beautiful and content in her slumber.
The wind swished and blew, and Neera stood on the veranda waiting for the magical world of imagination to unfold before her. It would reveal itself if she waited and if none of the grown-ups arrived to disturb.
An adult Neera poured water from the jug on the dining table and drank it up. She never learnt to take a nap during day-time. But those were the days. Was there a way to turn the clock backward and escape into the past? Why did people marry and have children…she wondered. Anybody would say that it was to procreate and to leave a mark in this world. To let the world, know that they lived, and they had done their duty to the world by leaving a living being.
Yes, but was it not also to fill up their loneliness? To be dreadfully busy so that the autumn wind did not disturb them to remind of the loneliness that hovered just beyond the window sill? Ennui and existentialism were rather recent terms, weren’t they? Where were they two centuries ago? Was life getting worse and worse with each passing day? No wonder the gods of the ancient times were pitiless; they had the weight of immortality to carry.
Neera walked around her apartment closing a window and opening the kitchen door—unnecessarily. She had thought that a day or two of rest would be good. But an out and out workaholic, Neera did not know how to rest. Finally, she opened her big steel almirah and thought perhaps it would be good to get rid of some of the old stuff. She had not done a thorough cleaning in quite some time. Different shades of blue, crimson, green, brown and purple started piling up on the bed beside her almirah. While looking through the small built-in cabinet where she kept her certificates and papers, something hit her fingers. At first, she was mystified, but then she remembered that there was a secret chamber in there.
Her father had had it made for her and told her with a smile, “This box is all yours— for the secrets you don’t want to share with anyone.” Did she ever keep anything there? Oh yes, from time to time, it had contained the secrets from her teenage years to adulthood: the diary she did not want her mother to read, a heart shaped locket she got from someone she had a crush on, and what not? Didn’t she keep a copy of La Nuit Bengali too? Her mother would have killed her if she saw her teenage daughter reading about the scandalous affair of Maitreyi Devi and her European lover. But where was the key? Neera stood dumbfounded for some time. She could not even remember when she had opened it last.
Fumbling through the other drawers, finally, she fished out a bunch of keys hanging on a pink ribbon. She looked at the faded ribbon with distaste and then remembered that there was a time she cherished this ribbon which originally was deep lilac in color and had a few glitters on it. Neera inserted the smallest key into the faintly visible hole and twisted it hard. She was surprised at her own eagerness. What could she possibly find in there? A musty smell of dust greeted her and there was nothing else. Then she thought she saw something. With hands trembling, she dragged out a small piece of cloth. What was it except for a small handkerchief? A pinkish handkerchief yellowed with age. It did not seem familiar. Thoughtfully, Neera pushed it back where it was and then spied a glint in the dark of the box. It was a nose-pin, a nose-pin she got from the marriage she had left behind. She never wore it of course just as she never complied to many of the things demanded of her. But how did it end here? Didn’t she leave all the jewelry in the house she would never returned to? Slowly, Neera closed the secret chamber, turned the key and locked it. There are so many such boxes and chambers in one’s life; it was best to leave them as they were.
But her heart ached as she recalled a number of other things she thought she had forgotten. A balcony full of different colored orchids, and three cats prowling among them. Slanted sunlight played with two kittens that rolled in the floor of the balcony and tried to hang onto the folds of her long dress. And on moonlit nights, Neera would often wonder at her own shadow that did not seem like hers. There were half-forgotten faces, faces she will never perhaps see again.
Neera pulled out a book and pushed it back in the shelf almost immediately after. NO, she told herself. She certainly did not want to read poetry today. She had problems enough. She opened her laptop instead. A scene from some desert land greeted her and for no good reason her eyes welled up. She remembered how she was walking by a lace shop in the New Market the other day—a spot she often frequented with her mother. She had gone there to buy some lace for trimming, and suddenly, it hit her.
It was almost a physical blow and Neera had to grit her teeth to regain control over herself. She had to walk into a fast food shop and ask for a bottle of cold water. Sitting on a stool she had ordered a milkshake and drunk from the bottle. She had not realized such a desert existed inside her. She had not thought that it would cause so much pain. Weren’t they all relieved at her death since she was suffering so much? Neera sat inside the shop with a dizzying head and looked on listlessly at the passing crowd.
The elderly woman finally slept peacefully in the cot brought in by the medical team. Her once lovely cheeks were sunken; the once taut skin wrinkled. Her body smelled a mixture of sweat, talcum powder and antiseptic. At long last, they had been able to inject morphine and put her to sleep. But the pain, the unbelievable pain that Neera had witnessed through the past months, hovered at the corners of her bedroom. Neera could feel its presence, she could sense the monster licking its paws, getting ready to pounce on the form lying on bed at the first opportunity.
Her mother was one of the most beautiful women Neera had ever known. During her last days, however, she was just skin and bones. Her siblings came to visit her but rushed out as soon as possible. Neera could sense that they could not bear to see the sufferings of their sister. She had no such respite though. She had to see her mother’s body shrink and waste away. She had to watch her mind going berserk. She had to witness the mortification of the flesh.
“Mother,” she whispered. “O mother.”
It feels unreal. Her days glided by in some moon-drenched surrealistic waves. The cars honk. Beggars jeer. Children squeal. The muezzin hollers five times a day from the top of the minaret. She teaches in classrooms. She laughs and chats with her friends and colleagues on phone and viber. She posts this and that on the Facebook and laughs at some funny videos posted by friends on Instagram.
She listens to the rich voice of Mousumi Bhaumik: “Ami khujchhi, ami khujchhi tomar thikana/ Oli goli ghurey klanto, tobu tomaye pachchhi na…” (I am searching, I am looking for you/ I am tired after looking through the circuitous lanes, and yet cannot seem to find you).
In the middle of the night she wakes up. Does someone moan in the next room? Does someone call out? The shadows of the night twirl and reel in her semi-dark bed-room. Shards of moonlight reflect from the floor of her room like unfulfilled promises. Neera waits.
She waits for a relief from the ache that causes a tremor in her heart through the days and nights. But will it ever let go of her? Can it?
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, non-fiction, and book reviews have been published in Six Seasons Review, Bengal Lights, The Daily Star, Dhaka Tribune, and New Age.
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