Komla Begum strode with great purpose down the aisles of the grocery store. Every footfall was audible and every step was a huff. She was angry that her daughter had broken a ceramic bowl, angry that her son had returned a ‘C’ from a math test, angry that people blocked her path in the aisles of the store, and angry that her sister had requested more money for their mother’s medication. To the outside world however, she did not look angry. Komla was confident the world would only see her composure when they noticed her emerald green coat and matching hijab. The entire day had started off on the wrong foot. A phone call from her sister at the Zakiganj post office had informed her of their mother’s illness. Her sister’s muffled and scratchy voice thousands of miles away betrayed the heat and desperation Komla had left behind. Zakiganj had its charm however. The flowers never died there, the green never wilted, and her brothers could be found loitering in any of the tea shops watching a game. Nonetheless, she had to leave the town. She had her future children to think about. Medicine, education and money as well. Most of all, they didn’t care about your last name here. And in Zakiganj, they would not let you forget it.
When she got home later that day, she took off her hijab and put on a loose chador, instructing her son Sheem and daughter Konia to put away the groceries. She rolled up her sleeves and dragged a bag of onions out from under the kitchen sink. Before she could pull a few of them out of the bag, she heard a loud crash. Knife in hand, she investigated the noise coming from the front of the house. Konia had dropped the laptop on the faded brown carpet of their modest home.
“By Allah, why was I cursed with someone like you?! My head is pounding and is going to explode and you can’t stop breaking things?” Komla grabbed her daughter by the arm and swung with the flat of the knife until the girl started crying and twisting her body to get away. Every contortion did nothing but make Komla feel a little better deep, deep down inside. She took no joy from dispensing the discipline, only feeling her anger disappear with every swing of her arm, the fire dying inside her as the exhaustion grew. She let go of her daughter, who did not run.
“Now go and do that math notebook your brother bought you! If I call you, come.”
Komla returned to the kitchen and fell into a trance, her body moving unmeasured in memorized paces, finishing dishes she’d mastered as a child. The smell of fried onions filled the house, the sizzling of pots adding to the orchestra as the Tandoori began to patiently bubble in the oven. She didn’t bother checking on it, knowing it was made just the way the kids would like it, with mustard seed and fat dripping off and soaking the red meat in pure flavor. Komla opened the front and back doors of her home to let the smell and heat out. To anyone passing by amid the melting snow of March, the steam rising from the entrance of the small home was a peculiar sight, with only the faint sizzling and stirring of Komla’s movement providing a vague auditory clue as to what was happening inside.
Their friends from the neighborhood were due to arrive for dinner that night. Anil, Neha and their young daughter Ruby, who was the same age as Konia. Komla would not spare a single drop of sweat from her brow in cooking for the guests. They would recognize every bay leaf as a tender touch, every grain of cumin as a premeditated smile, and every thread of Saffron for exactly what it was. When the guests arrived that night and had been settled in the living room, their cacophonous chatter was married with the undying fragrance of dishes in the air, eager with longing. Looking around the room, Komla noticed her son was missing and had not introduced himself to the guests yet. She called out for him, assuming he was in his room upstairs. He did not come.
“Bhabi I’m so sorry, I don’t know where that cursed son of mine is. If you’ll excuse me one second…” She stood up while Neha replied.
“Of course. Not at all, your son is of an age after all.”
To anyone passing by amid the melting snow of March, the steam rising from the entrance of the small home was a peculiar sight, with only the faint sizzling and stirring of Komla’s movement providing a vague auditory clue as to what was happening inside.
Komla stormed off dramatically while the other adults smiled softly. Anil and Neha were tolerable people. Anil would speak so loudly sometimes, Komla felt the walls were shaking, but that reminded her of home, and Neha talked too much but Komla still preferred her over the company of the other wives in the neighborhood. They seemed more concerned with gossip than ensuring their children were brought up right. Neha and Anil were lucky they only had the one daughter to worry about. Only one headache.
She walked up the staircase of her creaking home with heavy steps, trying to warn Sheem with noise so he’d know she was angry. When she reached the top flight she walked up to his closed door and opened it, looking inside.
Sheem was on the phone, and immediately snapped his head up, shock and surprise conveyed on his lifted brows, identical to his father’s. He had not heard the footsteps.
“What are you doing!? I’ve been calling you all night!” Komla said, referring to the last fifteen minutes.
“Sorry, I didn’t hear you,” he replied, putting the phone on his lap but not hanging up.
“Come down immediately!” Komla snapped. She was torn on whether she’d beat him later. Komla closed the door to return to the waiting guests below but stopped herself. She sensed that something was off.
“Who are you on the phone with?”
“Muhammad. He’s helping me with a homework question.”
“Okay.” Komla closed the door and walked away. But rather than returning downstairs, she went into her own room. Her son’s reply did not sit well with her. His reply was meek and desperate. She picked up the phone in her own room and pressed ‘TALK’, placing the handset against one ear. She heard her son’s voice.
“Wait! Stop…wait wait wait. Don’t say a word. I’m going to tell you to do something and I need you to do it. Whatever you do, do not say a word. Just hang up. Right now. Without saying a word.”
“What?” The unmistakable voice of a girl rung out as clear as a trumpet on the Day of Judgement. Komla knew it was a girl. The line went dead. Vindication was in every thunderous step now as she walked back to her son’s room and opened the door. Komla studied her son’s face, looking for a fight. Finding nothing but dejection and defeat in his shoulders, Komla stood taller.
“Who was that?” She hissed.
“Why is she calling here? How did she get our number?”
“I needed homework help. So I was just asking her.” Sheem’s shoulders hunched over the desk, he avoided Komla’s eyes.
“Why ask her? Why aren’t you asking a boy?” Komla dug further. Sheem remained silent so Komla kept digging. “Why couldn’t you ask a boy? There aren’t any smart boys? Why are you talking to girls?” Komla waited, and then, fearing his answer she continued, “Now is not the age for that. Who is she? Say something.”
“She’s the only one who knew the answer.” His response was barely audible.
“In a whole classroom there is only one girl who knows the answers? You expect me to believe that? Listen, your mother may not have gone to school like you but she is not a fool. Don’t think I’m stupid! After Uncle and Aunty leave tonight, your father and I will deal with you.” Komla finished with angry triumph. She was not exultant but rather she was vindicated. The way a Doctor is when they confirm a patient’s cancer through intuition first, before sighting the tumor through an x-ray.
Komla Begum could not remember ever misdiagnosing someone. She joined the guests in her living room, son in tow. Komla called everyone to dinner, trying to take her mind off of her son’s transgression. Her husband Munir and Anil were the last to arrive at the table; their wives were content to let them believe their proselytization necessitated a tardy entrance.
“Where have you been Sheem? It’s so nice to see you.” Neha said, taking a seat at the table as she adjusted her white head scarf. Komla took the liberty of answering for her son.
“Studying. He had his head buried in a book so he couldn’t hear us. You know how he is,” Komla said. Sheem wordlessly took a seat at the table next to his sister, ignoring the conversation. Komla couldn’t shake the voice on the phone from her head. Who was that girl? Komla began to wonder if she could artfully teach her son a lesson then and there through her own mature eloquence. Before she could begin, Neha’s voice dragged her back into the constant melody of the cramped kitchen.
“Bhabi, such a rare and special item. I feel bad just eating it. The last time you came to our home we served you such simple dishes.” Neha was pointing at the Shutki, standing out among a crowd of dishes on the table. The dried fish had been mailed to her from overseas, and Komla had been saving it for guests, as her own children convulsed at the smell of it. She’d tried to make them eat it many times, forced them to chew and swallow it, but it was the one item they could not stomach. She couldn’t understand it. When she herself was a girl she could remember squatting on the clay verandah, watching the thin, flat fish dry in the midday sun. The straw awning above her provided respite while she tried to crisp the edges of the fish with her gaze and catch it, turning to gold beneath her watchful eye. Her toes curled in anticipation and she would wait there until the voice of her mother from a faraway room beckoned her back to awaiting duties indoors. These days, the bowl of succulent, baked, blood-red Tandoori was all her children would reach for across the table. Simple, reliable and familiar, they disavowed a midday sun they’d never seen, clay they’d never stepped on, and straw they’d never slept on.
“Nonsense, there were no simple dishes! I’m still folding samosas using that one trick you showed me.” Komla retorted. Her eyes followed Sheem’s hand, which reached for a leg of Tandoori. Behind closed doors, Komla was confident she could change the weather and right ships, even in the complicated company of guests. She waited for a lull in the conversation between Munir, Anil and Neha.
“You know, I heard something the other day from a Bhabi I met at the grocery store. She looked very sad so I just thought to ask her if everything was okay,” Komla said, steering the evening. Her husband raised his eyebrows in surprise. She rarely ever told a story she hadn’t told Munir first. His honest nature read nothing more in her words other than her words.
“She told me her father had died a month prior and she hadn’t been the same since,” Komla said looking around.
“That would happen. When a parent dies, no matter how old they are, the pain never goes away,” Neha said nodding in agreement.
These days, the bowl of succulent, baked, blood-red Tandoori was all her children would reach for across the table. Simple, reliable and familiar, they disavowed a midday sun they’d never seen, clay they’d never stepped on, and straw they’d never slept on.
“But it turns out, that wasn’t why she was sad,” Komla began. “She said she’d be able to get over her pain if it wasn’t for what happened after his death. She said that after he died, her brother was in the hospital with her when the Imam arrived to perform the death rites. Her brother had not been around for many years, leaving after an argument with their father. She’d heard that he’d married a white woman. She suspected that he was ruined, as he’d forgotten most of his Bengali. It was choppy and unclear and he had an earring on one side.” She said, pointing to an ear.
“May Allah forgive me,” Munir said, apologizing for things he had not done, in case he had done them. He was loving this story, and everybody else had paused as well in their meal to listen. Komla continued.
“The Imam said a prayer and asked her brother to recite the Shahadat. He reacted like he hadn’t heard the Imam, and the woman thought this as well so the Imam repeated his request. The woman said her brother still stayed silent while she wondered why he wouldn’t recite the Shahadat. He just stood there until it dawned on her. He didn’t know it,” Komla said while glancing at her son, who had his head down but could hear. “The Imam then looked in her direction and she understood the cue. She said she recited it while her brother stood idly by.”
“May Allah forgive me,” Munir repeated, apologizing for things he would do in the future, to ensure he did not have that future.
“You know, the Bhabi at the grocery store really taught me something. We need to raise our children right. Especially here in this country, where we don’t have neighbors looking out for them. It’s so easy to lose them if we’re not careful. If we don’t watch them, they’ll forget everything and become ruined.”
“Indeed, we have to be careful,” Anil chipped in.
“They’ll forget how to recite the Quran, their language, their foods and become spoiled like that man. They’ll renounce their families and do who-knows-what unspeakable things with questionable women,” Komla said.
“We have to remain vigilant. Who they’re friends with, what they’re learning in the schools here, what they’re seeing on TV,” Munir added, nodding his head completely. Neha stayed silent. She had her head turned slightly, and was looking at Komla. Neha was not simple the way Munir and Anil were. Neha read between lines and lives and spoke the unteachable language Komla spoke, and so she understood that there was a purpose to every story. She watched Komla’s deep brown eyes as opposed to her purple lips. Neha followed the diatribe to its intended location. She caught Komla’s eyes studying her son Sheem, who had his head down. The boy had heard the story but did not react. His own brown eyes were glazed over with a lack of understanding, or fear, or anything else. He was hunched over, wholly focused on picking apart the Tandoori chicken on his plate. A bone cracked between his teeth.
Sadi Muktadir is a Canadian-Bengali writer, born and raised in Toronto, currently squandering his twenties in an office. He’s been writing his entire life, and has recently been published in the Humber Literary Review, and most recently won the ‘2017 What’s Your Story Writing Contest’ for Toronto.
Illustrations by Alex Rombough.