Frightening dreams, rejection, and secret compromises: a middle-aged Bengali widow living in a compound struggles to maintain her dignity and independence while supporting her insolent grandson.
Widows in Dhaka
The size of a jackfruit, a tumour sprouted on fifty-five-year-old widow Nondita Banik’s left leg, below the knee; and like a jackfruit, the tumour grew to be knobbly-rough and it weighed so heavily on her limb, Nondita couldn’t move her leg. She thought she’d been punished by god. As a child she’d been told by her family who were from Burigana, Dhaka, that god had many ways to punish you. One minute you’re happy and the next you’re lying sick in bed because god had struck you with an incurable affliction. She’d learned to be respectful of her elders growing up as a child; her elders had always known what was best for her, which was why she’d been a child bride at thirteen. Refuting their decisions would have been an insult to god, unforgivable; only by listening to her elders would god then favour her and make her happy, they’d said. Perhaps because she’d disobeyed them she’d been punished so late in life.
The bickering outside in the compound, cramped with huts and bungalows, made her wake up on the floor mattress. Nasty cries bounced up and down the compound. The communal toilets were leaking again, and the residents shouted about the poor state of the toilets. A man’s voice hollered, “This is vile! How can we live with toilets like this? They’re filthy!” Someone else banged on a toilet door saying, “How long does it take to have a shit? We all need one! Get out, get out!” If not the toilets, then the residents complained about the water pumps not running properly or the electricity tripping out. They made a tremendous fuss. Babies cried to be fed in their mothers’ arms. Nondita remained calm, relieved that the tumour on her left leg had existed only in her dreams. Her slim legs were still smooth. She welcomed the hullabaloo in the compound; it diverted her mind from the tumours blossoming in her dreams. A whiff of spiced chai drifted in from a neighbouring hut, teasing her nostrils.
Looking at herself, Nondita found it funny, thinking how as a woman you wear white twice in your life, first as a widow and then, second and finally, when you die, enveloped in your funeral shroud.
Nondita looked at the clock; it was just six o’clock in the morning. She felt a vague stab of disappointment and held in the urge to use the toilets outside for the time being until the queues shortened. With a little difficulty, she wrapped her magnolia-white sari around herself in loose folds. Never in her life did she predict she’d have to wear the colour white, but with the unexpected death over a year ago of her husband, Dilip Banik, a former caretaker at Jagannath University, she now had to wear white as a widow. Her husband died due to coronary heart disease; scans revealed his arteries were filled with cholesterol, and she blamed herself for his death. She’d fuelled his cravings for Bengali sweets, laddus, pithas, and gulab jammuns that were filled with ghee and sugar. He’d died a painful death, but at least he’d gone quickly, sparing her the torture to watch him die slowly. Tears came to her eyes. Maybe god had been planning to punish her for a long time and as a widow, none of her relatives wanted anything to do with her. A widow would only bring bad luck and bad fortune on a family, they’d said, and so she moved away from Burigana into a rented, shared compound in northern Dhaka, near Sutrapur. At least her seventeen-year-old grandson, Kishor, lived with her. Despite being a lazy, ungrateful boy, she felt sorry for him because his father had gone off with a mistress and, due to the scorn of their neighbours, his mother also left him.
She shut her closet of white saris. During her marriage, she’d filled her old closet with saris in a diverse range of colours, in shades of pink, green, and yellow, her favourite colour. Pink was the colour of her wedding sari, but she’d given them all away to a local charity, Odhikar, which looked after financially bereft widows abandoned by their families. Nondita at least had her husband’s pension to live on as well as a little money she earned as a seamstress. She realised it was the fate of many Bengali widows who’d spent their entire lives caring for others to be gradually rejected, in the end finding themselves dumped, realising too late that the one person they’d neglected to watch out for was themselves. Looking at herself, she found it funny, thinking how as a woman you wear white twice in your life, first as a widow and then, second and finally, when you die, enveloped in your funeral shroud. In the beginning, she found it awkward wearing white. However, she knew if she wore any other colour, people outside would regard her with disgust; they’d see her as a woman who’d lost her mind. She then quickly used the toilet outside and brought in the jug of milk and pot of honey left by the milkman on the wooden verandah of her tiny bungalow. She checked them; as always the milk had been diluted with water and the honey looked pale, runny. Crooked suppliers across the city sold milk and honey mixed with water to make more profit, but she counted herself lucky because, unlike last week, her milk and honey hadn’t been stolen by someone in the compound. She’d find the culprit one of these days.
Nondita folded the clothes into individual brown paper bags, then tied them with silk ribbons as an extra touch for her clients, most of whom were wealthy housewives who didn't have the time to mend clothes for themselves and their families.
Kishor hobbled out of his room to use the toilet then shuffled back into bed, burping, yawning, whilst Nondita shouted, “Don’t you have college this morning?” He didn’t reply, acting as though he hadn’t heard her. Reaching out to a teenager had been more difficult than she’d imagined, and recently she’d detected he’d started to drink and smoke outside, but there was little she could do to prevent it. She went into the dingy kitchen, the dirtiest room in the bungalow, with one side of the wall dusted with black soot from a clay oven she used, until she replaced it with a gas stove on rent. On the brightest of days the kitchen remained in semidarkness. Even the ceiling looked dark and flaky, and her pots and pans were black. She thought she’d persuade her grandson to repaint the walls for her though it was unlikely he would do it; and then again, the black wall didn’t bother her as much as it used to. It gave the kitchen a distinct, gloomy character. Painting it would turn out to be a hassle, not to mention the cost. Nondita remembered she had to visit the rent collector to pay him, and next month being Ramadan, she wanted to get her finances up-to-date. She put the milk and honey in the small fridge and welcomed the flurry of cold air from inside. On an empty stomach she sucked on an ice cube. A pot of mustard-fish curry had gone stale, and she threw it away along with the rice. She boiled herself a cup of tea, drank it, and then prepared a bowl of milk vermicelli with luchi, a type of fried flat bread, for Kishor. Placing the milk vermicelli and luchi on a tray, she sauntered into Kishor’s room. He lay asleep, snoring in bed with his jeans and T-shirt on. His room reeked of sweaty feet, and clothes lay tossed around the floor. Why couldn’t he keep his room tidy? she asked herself. What was so difficult about putting your possessions in their correct place?
She opened the blinds. September sunlight streamed in, and Kishor stirred, moaned weakly, and yanked the blanket over his head. Normally, at weekends, she didn’t have the heart to get him out of bed, but during college week she insisted he be up bright and early. She noticed a sports calendar on the floor with pictures of European women in bikinis on sunny beaches. Apart from the clutter, something would have to be done to transform his room. The monsoon season had caused water to infiltrate down one side of the room; the plaster was crumbling. It was widely known that mediocre material, cheap cement, and cheap bricks were imported from outside Dhaka and used for construction of the compound, to erect the place as quickly as possible, as well as to keep costs to a minimum. This meant greedy contractors in the city and the rent collector pocketed all the money they could get their dirty hands on.
Nondita put the tray of breakfast on the table.
“Kishor! Kishor, wake up. You have college this morning,” she said. She shook him and he grumbled something unintelligible. “Kishor, I don’t want you to be late for college. Get up and eat your breakfast. I’ve made your favourite.” He’d never been close to either of his parents, and heading into his future, he had no aspirations to become anything and achieve academically at Bashir Uddin College. Shaking him and yelling produced no response; it only made him lazier. She’d believed with the right mentors and encouragement, he’d have the chance to excel, but she wondered if she’d been too hopeful, too idealistic. Sometimes, she found herself reaching out to him in desperation. Maybe with time, he’d decide what to do with his life; he was still young, and because of the family link she couldn’t discard him, not the way his parents had done.
“I’ll go and iron your clothes for you. I want you up in ten minutes.”
“Leave me alone,” he moaned. “Let me sleep . . .”
Leaning in closer to him, Nondita suddenly caught the whiff of liquor and hashish off his bed sheets. She tried to pull the blanket off him but he clenched it tight. “Have you been drinking and smoking again? You swore on your grandfather’s grave you wouldn’t! How would he feel if he saw you this way? Don’t you care about anything?”
“Go away, woman. . . .”
It can’t really be her grandson’s fault that he drank and smoked. She blamed it on peer pressure and the city itself, which failed to fulfil the dreams of its youth. He was at an impressionable age and she viewed it as her duty to guide him. He wasn’t a bad person at heart; it was only bad energy flowing through him and with god’s grace it would flow out of him. She prayed for that day to arrive soon. She’d waited and prayed for long enough. She’d contemplated going to a mullah for a tabeez,an amulet to tie around his wrist for good luck. A part of her did wonder if, should her dreams of an aggressive tumour ravaging her left leg become a reality, leaving her disabled, Kishor would take advantage of the situation and squander everything she owned. Nondita went out of his room and ironed his clothes, cursing to herself. Ten minutes later, she checked up on him. He’d shut the blinds and lay in bed. Frustrated, she stomped into the kitchen, grabbed a bowl of hot water, went back into Kishor’s room, and dipped his fingers into the hot water then slapped his feet.
Kishor howled, “You crazy old woman! Have you gone mad?”
His greasy hair stuck out in a peak and he blew into his fingers.
“You made me do it,” she said, miserably. “You left me with no other choice. I can’t see you waste your life in bed.”
“Why won’t you leave me alone?”
“I do things for your own good. Kishor, I know you’re a bright boy, you should be in college. You should study hard, then you can be what you want.”
“Well look at you, you’re nothing special,” he jeered. “Studying doesn’t get you anywhere. Why do you think so many young people with degrees are roaming like animals on the streets?”
She sighed. “If you listen to me and go to college, I’ll give you money.”
Thinking about it for a minute, he seemed interested in his grandmother’s offer. He had a curious glow on his face. “How much?”
“Two hundred taka.”
At last, he got out of bed and gobbled up his breakfast. She heated water in a dented vessel for his bath, and he took a wash in one of the outside toilets, then got dressed. On his way out, he reminded her about the money she’d promised him. Taking three one-hundred taka notes from her purse and giving them to him, she said, “Don’t spend it on anything stupid.”
“This isn’t enough money to spend on something stupid,” he replied, then checked to see if the notes were real under the light. Satisfied, he rolled the money in his trouser pocket and left. Nondita finished ironing the rest of his clothes; she cleaned his room and made his bed. She fumigated his room with incense then opened the windows to allow any evil spirits to depart. She reminded herself once again about going to see the rent collector. She drank another cup of tea in the kitchen. One of the neighbour’s black cats purred into the kitchen through the open, back door. It licked and swallowed a piece of bread off the floor and Nondita cringed, stepped back, and flung a jug of cold water at the cat. It ran back out. She hated cats, and stray ones prowled around everywhere within the compound. There was no way to get rid of them. They slunk around for whatever bit of food they could find and because they were so anaemic looking, she had no idea what diseases they carried. Nonetheless, she had no time to waste on intrusive cats. She settled down in the living room with her sewing machine, grateful she had one to keep her mind and hands occupied. Without her sewing machine, she would have gone crazy. She stitched two petticoats, two saris, and four shirts, finishing by eleven o’clock. She wasted nothing, not even a strand of thread. In a basket, she kept mounds of fabric, thread, measuring tape, scissors, and needles. She hadn’t decided what to do yet with the various scraps of fabrics; she could make a cover for a blanket and sell it. Nondita folded the clothes into individual brown paper bags, then tied them with silk ribbons as an extra touch for her clients, most of whom were wealthy housewives who didn’t have the time to mend clothes for themselves and their families. She assumed her customers appreciated her efforts, though sometimes she felt dejected knowing she couldn’t wear any of the bright colours of these married women.
The poor never spoke against the government since no one heard their voices, and, even if they were to, officials bribed the police to force slum dwellers off their land. Next, the slums would be bulldozed with the excuse that illegal occupants had to be moved away in order to clear the land to gentrify the city, only to later fill it with more congested housing.
She put the packets in her satchel, then raced around, making sure the windows and doors were locked. She caught sight of seventy-year-old Farida Begum, squatting by one of the water pumps cleaning the insides of a koi fish she’d gutted. A widow herself, Farida Begum did her own housework. Her four sons were all married off, and three of them had left Bangladesh to work in Dubai. The fourth lived in Chittagong. None of them ever visited their mother, and she relied on certain neighbours to help her when she required anything. Watching her slice the fish, Nondita wondered if she’d be able to look after herself at that age with no one else to turn to. She didn’t know if she could rely on Kishor to look after her, though she hoped he would. On her way out, she thought she must invite Farida Begum for tea sometime. She saw a mother beat her child with a stick and a group of women washing clothes, and somehow all these activities made life in the compound seem normal. One of her neighbours stopped to ask her about her grandson, and gleefully she answered, “My Kishor is a very clever boy. He always gets the best grades in class.”
“Let’s hope he gets a good job, then he can look after his grandmother, can’t he?” her neighbour said.
Nondita didn’t answer. She walked away to catch a bus to central Dhaka. Walking up the dusty road to the bus stand, she covered her mouth with her pallu, the loose end of her sari, as she passed the open rubbish dumps. Flies, mosquitoes, and crows seethed around the odious-smelling dumps, a common problem throughout the city. At night, hungry slum dwellers foraged around them in pursuit of anything edible. Still, due to poor administration and government corruption, state officials did nothing to clear the city’s rubbish. The best they could do was shuffle the dumps elsewhere when people protested, or worse, burn them. But when a nearby slum caught fire wiping out an entire population, the government stopped the programme. No compensation had been offered to surviving victims. The poor never spoke against the government since no one heard their voices, and even if they were to speak out, officials bribed the police to force slum dwellers off their land. Next, the slums would be bulldozed with the excuse that illegal occupants had to be moved away in order to clear the land to gentrify the city, only to later fill it with more congested housing. Waiting for her bus, Nondita noticed spears of smoke high in the sky, in the distance. Sludgy water carrying fish scales and potato peelings oozed down the edge of the road, and she hopped on the bus. The bus meandered through the squalid neighbourhood. It went past the National Assembly Building and a clothes market, rumbling and honking through the clot of rickshaws, carts, and fruit sellers, all moving incoherently through various lanes. The Bengalis appeared different towards central Dhaka—richer, she thought, and shopping malls displayed the latest TVs, fridges, and computers. She must buy Kishor a computer, she reminded herself.
Out of respect, she wrapped her pallu over her head and knocked on the gates of a mansion belonging to a family of dentists. To avoid being accused of polluting the home, Nondita kept a metre away from the entrance. Nondita realised these married women did not want the inauspicious presence of a widow to tarnish their area. They still had their husbands and had no intention of losing them.
A band of beggars surrounded the bus, pleading for money, and the conductor tried to scare them off by banging his baton on the side of the bus. Nondita jumped off the bus, close to the financial district where most of her clients resided. She walked through a park onto Lal Bagaan Road. Out of respect, she wrapped her pallu over her head and knocked on the gates of a mansion belonging to a family of dentists. To avoid being accused of polluting the home, Nondita kept a metre away from the entrance. The housekeeper opened the gates.
“Oh, it’s you again,” the housekeeper said. “Glad to see you’ve remembered to stand in the correct place. Last time you were here the mistress told me off for letting you inside. What have you brought this time?”
“Two saris belonging to your mistress.”
The housekeeper took the brown paper bags and said she’d be back with her money. She wiped the bags with a cloth and pulled up her nose, grimacing. Nondita realised these married women did not want the inauspicious presence of a widow to tarnish their area. They still had their husbands and had no intention of losing them. The housekeeper returned, saying, “Here’s five hundred taka.”
“It’s less than I was paid last time.”
“That’s all you’re going to get. Take it or leave it.”
They stared at each other and the housekeeper looked uncomfortable.
“Don’t you feel any embarrassment doing this?” the housekeeper ranted. “You’re begging. It’s a sin to even look at you.”
“You’re no better. You also slave about for money from these rich dentists. We’re not so different.” The housekeeper turned red and slammed the gates shut. Not discouraged, she walked for another fifteen minutes down the street onto a narrow lane. At the second house, she delivered the petticoats, and at the third, the shirts. Here, she asked for a glass of water. The lady of the house gave her a cup of water wrapped in tissue to prevent her fingers from touching it, then told Nondita she could throw the cup away. She didn’t want it back out of fear that evil forces might enter her home. Funny, Nondita thought, how these people agreed to take clothes she sewed for them but how quickly they became unsympathetic in case she touched them. She ran the risk of being beaten if she did touch them, and no one would say anything. It depressed her to see how people treated you just because you’d lost someone in your life.
She counted eight hundred taka, which wasn’t bad. If she’d had another sari to do, she could have pushed it over a thousand. At least she could still earn money, and she collected a batch of new orders from five clients. Sometimes her clients sent their chauffeurs to her home to deliver clothes for her to mend. The hazy, afternoon heat grew heavier, and she took shade under a plum tree by the road. She didn’t view herself as a superstitious person, certainly not when she’d been younger, but with age she couldn’t be so sure. Her legs started shaking suddenly. This had become a frequent occurrence, which frightened her. She ate a snack of roasted chickpeas in chili and lemon juice she bought from a stall and then waved her hand for a tuk-tuk for her final journey of the day to see the rent collector, Jeetu Ghosh. She worried if she was late, she’d miss him. Down a street of mishti stores and fortune-tellers on Zahir Uddin Road near Jeetu’s quarters, she stumbled out of the tuk-tuk, paid the driver thirty taka, then threaded her way into his complex. Along with his own quarters, he owned several compounds throughout Dhaka. Around his three-storey villa there were several bungalows he rented out to foreign tourists and businesspeople. He spoke to guests with a playful, put-on voice, saying, “Yes, sir, yes, sir. You from England? For you, I have best price! My room best in Dhaka. Prince Charles stay in my house,” and tourists would laugh with him. Ambitious and shrewd, Jeetu knew how to keep things sweet.
Entering his house, Jeetu shouted in Bengali from his office, “Nondita! You’ve come! Take a seat my dear, I’ll be with you in a minute.”
She sat on a stool in the hallway, close to his office. His house reeked of sandalwood and biri, cigarettes. The hefty sums of money he collected from his tenants allowed him to splash out on luxury goods—ornate, imported Italian furniture, Japanese vases, English paintings. The walls were bordered in gold leaf as well as a pair of elephant tusks on the wall. A painting he’d commissioned of himself hung on the wall in the hallway, showing him dressed in a regal outfit, sitting on a black horse. A line of people formed a queue in his office to settle the arrears on their accounts. His mobile phone rang, and he yelled and swore at someone for not getting a job done.
“Oi!” he shouted at the servant boy, “get Nondita a cup of tea and some halwa.” The servant boy gave her a cup of tea and a small bowl of halwa, a dessert made with ghee and carrots. He stood by her whilst she drank the tea and ate the halwa, and then he took the dishes away.
“Let me get rid of these people, Nondita,” Jeetu said.
“Thank you, I can wait,” she answered.
“Have you met that lady over there who’s sat down?” Jeetu said to someone in his office. “That’s my number-one tenant, always pays on time, not like you, always late, always excuses!” More tenants arrived to pay their rent, and he warned them if they paid late again, he’d have them kicked out of his premises. He had a long waiting list of people wanting accommodation. She’d heard he employed child slaves to work in several factories in Dhaka who churned out clothes day and night in bad conditions for Western clients, as well as running brothels and drug dens. Ordinarily, she would never have guessed that by looking at him. Jeetu dressed respectably with a topi, a prayer cap on his head as a devout Muslim would, and he also appeared younger than sixty with his unlined skin and mop of oily, black hair he’d had coloured. In some ways, he seemed such a simple man, and maybe that’s what frightened people. Once all the tenants left, he said, “Nondita, come in now.” She went into his office, seeing the stacks of five hundred taka notes on the table. He smiled at her and insisted she sit down and relax while he checked his money. She noticed the way he counted the money, constantly licking his fingers. Minutes rolled by and she became restless under his vigilant gaze. She felt grateful when the servant boy came in.
“Oi! Where’s my tea?”
“I’m making one now, Ghosh babu,” the boy replied.
“Nondita, do you want one?”
“No,” she said, and he shouted at the servant boy to get him two cups of tea for him to drink alone.
Jeetu began to stack the money in piles of equal height measuring their length with a ruler. “Let me tell you, Nondita, there are so many people who don’t pay me on time.”
Winking at her, he said, “You’re an exception, my dear.”
He picked his nose, stared at her amusedly, then drank both cups of tea the servant boy brought in on a tray. He took the piles of money into a back room, locking them away in the safe. She knew his job entailed hiring spies to watch his compounds to unearth the secrets of his tenants, then using them against people when they became funny with him with money. She wondered what he knew about her as he hustled into his office and said, “Come on, we don’t have all day.” He led her into his gaudy, pink bedroom upstairs and, as always, a veil of grief hung over her before falling down her shoulders. Later, disentangling herself from his clammy embrace, she thought for another twenty minutes in bed with him she could have negotiated a further reduction in her rent by three hundred taka. He might stop collecting rent from her. He watched as she pleated her sari around her waist.
Jeetu boasted, “There aren’t many men like me who know how to please a woman in bed.” She said nothing and he popped a cigarette in his mouth and lit it with a gold lighter. He stroked his belly and smoked in bed. He continued to stare at her and his fixed gaze made Nondita uneasy. It made her more aware of what she’d done and would prefer to forget.
“Going so soon?”
“I have to. My grandson will be home from college.”
“You waste your time on that boy.”
“He’s the only family I have left.”
“Sometimes I get the feeling from you, Nondita, that you’re drowning in a dark well.”
“Is there anything left to do but drown?” she replied, looking down at her bare feet.
He called for the servant boy to bring him more tea and Nondita sighed. She couldn’t pleat her sari properly; she started from the beginning.
“You’re still a very pretty woman. No one would think you’re in your fifties. You still look thirty!”
She made no comment, feeling her old self again with her sari wrapped around her properly. She inspected every single pleat to make sure they were tight and wouldn’t come loose. She then stared at her bare wrists, where she once wore colourful bangles. She contemplated what other ways were there to convince Jeetu to reduce the rent for her. It wouldn’t amaze her if he had other women like herself who serviced him for certain favours. If not money, then maybe they needed a damaged roof repaired or a new television. Sometimes, she feared what might happen to her if other residents discovered her relationship with the rent collector, and thus she understood if Jeetu ever wanted to shatter her reputation, he’d have an easy way of doing so.
“It’s a shame your husband isn’t around anymore. I do feel sorry for women who find themselves in your position. It can’t be easy. . . .”
“Yes, it is a shame,” she said, picking up her bag from the floor. Her eyes wandered to the mirror in the corner and she thought she appeared older in her white sari. The less she saw herself in the mirror, the better it would be for her, she decided.
“You’re too young to be a widow,” Jeetu said, rolling onto his stomach, his hairy bottom exposed. He curled up his lips. “I know a man who’d be interested in you. He has plenty of money.”
“Money isn’t the only thing in life, is it?” she responded sharply, her voice heightened. “You’re not going to take it to your grave.”
“I will be.” He laughed at her, seeing she’d become insulted. “Besides, Nondita, this doesn’t sound correct coming from you. After all, my dear, it’s money that brings you here, so don’t talk to me about the value of money because I can shut you up in a second. No one can live without money, especially someone like you.”
The servant boy entered with Jeetu’s tea. Carefully, he placed the tea on top of the cabinet next to the bed, in order not to spill a single drop. The last time she’d been here, he’d spilt the tea on the bed and Jeetu flogged him so badly with a belt that bloody welts emerged on the boy’s back. He walked out of the room once Jeetu told him it was fine for him to go.
Nondita asked, “You’ll remember to discount my rent next month, won’t you?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” he said. “If I must.” He sounded irritated for a moment.
“Yes, just go, go to that grandson of yours.”
She left him scratching his buttocks, and on her way out she saw the servant boy sweeping the floor with a brush. As far as she could gather, he had no parents in Dhaka. Most likely, Jeetu had bought him from a family in a village somewhere for the price of a village cow or a new roof. She longed to be home and get busy sewing. The familiar smells and sounds of the city hit her as she walked out, and the problem of stray cats seemed worse here than her own area. She had no idea where these cats came from; they were everywhere. Soon, cats would outnumber humans. On her way home in a tuk-tuk, the driver drove past the central mosque. Seeing men and women attending prayers, Nondita realised she had no place in a mosque. Even if she tried to walk up to one, she couldn’t make herself enter the premises. It had been a long time since she’d performed her five daily prayers.
* * *
Once home, she rushed to use the communal toilets. Luckily, the men had gone to the mosque for prayers, but the women formed a queue outside. Only when their men were out did the majority of the women come out of their bungalows and huts in groups to gossip or use the toilets. A few of them smiled but didn’t speak to her. After using the toilets, they returned to their homes to cook the evening meals, which could take them all evening, cooking and cleaning for their husbands, children, and in-laws. Nondita waited for twenty minutes for her turn, and the toilets continued to leak. “The rent collector will fix the leaks,” she said to a woman passing by who didn’t make eye contact or any remark. The electricity had gone, and so she had to use the toilets in the dark. Stepping inside, she shut her eyes and covered her mouth with her hands. The person before her had obviously emptied their bowels and blobs of faeces covered the toilet. She coughed due to the unbearable, bad smell and, squatting down to urinate, she sneezed and coughed. She found it impossible to breath.
Finished, she made her way quickly to the bungalow. The smell of fried mustard seeds and fish drifted past her nose as she stood on her veranda for a minute, enjoying the aroma of cooking. She sighed, then went in. Kishor hadn’t returned yet from college. She slipped into her room and changed into a different sari, though it looked exactly the same as the one she took off. No one would be able to tell the difference between one shade of white and another. She felt prickly all over her body, and then her neck grew hot. With effort, she sat down in the living room and the electricity came back on again as if by a miracle. Nondita commenced sewing the batch of new orders. She felt relieved her legs weren’t shaking as they’d done earlier. Kishor arrived after five o’clock. She hoped he hadn’t been drinking.
“Kishor, wait,” she said as he ignored her, making his way to his room to wriggle into bed. “I bought you these. I thought you’d need them for college.”
He shrugged, took the polythene bag off his grandmother and inspected the stationery she’d bought for him from Eastern Paper Stores. He rolled his eyes and gave her a frozen stare. Her heartbeat stumbled.
“I was also thinking, you could do with a computer,” she stuttered. “Maybe after Ramadan we can both go shopping together and buy you one.”
“Oh, right . . .”
“Is the stationery not suitable? I got the best pen and paper the shopkeeper had.”
“Are you joking with me? Why you poor old woman; youcan’t afford to buy a house of your own, never mind a computer. That’s what I call stupid. And how do you expect me to use a computer in this rotten place you’ve put us in where the electricity goes off every day?”
He looked at her with his familiar stare and odd glow.
“Your grandfather left me a bit of money for you. I could use that.”
“Whatever you say, you poor old goat,” he replied vaguely. He tossed the bag of stationery across the room, then wandered into his bedroom. Nondita followed him. Flicking off his shoes he breathed deeply then shouted, “For god’s sake, what do you want now?”
“You shouldn’t have done that, Kishor. I only want the best for you.”
“Leave me alone,” he said as he tossed his socks across the room. His eyes hardened. “Why don’t you leave me alone? Is that too hard? Isn’t it bad enough that you mend clothes for people you could never be like?”
Bewildered, she replied, “It’s precisely because of that you have a roof over your head.”
“I wouldn’t go that far and call it a roof over my head,” he said in a tired, cynical way. She wished she could cheer her grandson up, make him see things with a new perspective, that things weren’t as dire as he believed, there are always people worse off than you. “People in college laugh at me because of you. A girl came up to me today to say that you go to her house to mend clothes for her family’s servants and to top it all, you were begging them for more money and you talk to me about buying a computer. You could be stitching clothes for the rest of your life and you still wouldn’t be able to buy one. You don’t get it, do you? Either you’re totally mad or you’re having a laugh!”
She didn’t answer him, sensing the cold feeling behind his eyes. It would be pitiless of her, she thought, to quarrel with her grandson. She’d only blame herself for pushing him away even more, creating a bigger rift between the two of them. Nondita didn’t see the point, despite everything seeming so hopeless.
“I want to get into bed,” he slurred. “Leave me alone. . . . I just want to be left by myself.”
“Why?” she asked.
He didn’t care to provide an explanation. He closed the blinds and, in the dark, slipped into bed in his clothes.
“I do everything I can for you,” she said. “I never wanted you to be without. I’ve done more for you than your mother ever did.”
He’d pulled the blanket over himself and lay still in bed. She didn’t understand how a young man like Kishor could sleep the amount he did. He’d waste the rest of his life in bed, not pursuing any goals, and it made her helpless knowing she could do little to change the one last family relationship she had. Bravely, she tried to shake him, saying he should eat some food, but he banged her chest with his elbow and yelled at her to go away. As she left, she began to wonder if she’d made a mistake by inviting him in to live with her, but then again she’d have felt terrible if she hadn’t. She couldn’t live with herself knowing her only grandchild lived on the streets. What other disaster would befall her? Maybe this was god’s way of punishing her, though she couldn’t ascertain what she was supposed to learn from this experience. She told herself that Kishor was still young, he had no idea what he was doing, it was her duty to forgive her grandson and not be disturbed by his emotional outbursts.
Nondita saw Farida Begum praying on her prayer mat on her porch. She couldn’t recollect what she’d done with her and her husband’s old prayer mats. She must have given them away. For a while, she didn’t see the use in praying five times a day when you don’t know if anyone is listening and if your prayers are being answered. She sat back down and continued with her stitching. She spread out a beautiful, shiny, lavender silk sari on her lap and stitched the borders. She forgot her worries for the time being. Once she’d completed the clothes, she ate fish with boiled rice and reserved a portion in a pot for Kishor. She’d give it to him in the morning to take to college. She peered up at the kitchen, realising it looked blacker somehow. A wicked omen, she thought, glancing away. Swiftly, she slipped away to her own room, removed her sari, and curled up in bed in her petticoat.
In her dreams, the tumour on her leg swelled to double the size. Rather than one jackfruit, it bloomed to the size of three jackfruits. The tumour grew and grew until it outweighed her body and she couldn’t move, breathe, or sit up, no matter how hard she tried. Soon, the tumour would burst. Nondita woke up with a scream, shuddering. Her heart raced in panic. She switched on the lamp and in a wave of relief saw that her legs were normal. Her right leg itched, and she scratched it where a red pimple had formed due to a mosquito bite. Her anxiety melted away. She took a napkin, dipped it in the glass of water by her bed, and then dabbed the wet napkin on her forehead to cool herself down. The clock ticked to five-thirty and she sprang out of bed and pottered about to clean and use the toilets before anyone else. She found the bag of stationery Kishor tossed aside and put it in a drawer; maybe on another day he’d accept her gift. Once her grandson woke up, she gave him his breakfast. He seemed to have forgotten the way he’d spoken to her the previous night.
On his way out she said, “Kishor, here, take this fifty taka and buy some pens and paper you like.”
He made a wry face. “This is barely enough for a tuk-tuk to college, let alone pens and paper, but I’ll keep it.”
Disheartened, she listened to him, unable to understand where his hatred derived from. She couldn’t believe his insolence and, worst of all, the disrespect on his face. Yet one of these days he’d change, and she would wait for that day to arrive.
“Do you know the meaning of fifty taka? Have you earned fifty taka before?” She paused, a firmness in her voice. They looked straight at each other; neither of their gazes faltered. “No, you haven’t, and until the day you do, Kishor, you ought to appreciate you have someone in your life who’s willing to give you fifty taka.”
“Whatever you say.”
She heard the dejection in his voice. He brushed past her. After he’d gone, she felt sad about the way she’d spoken to him. She sensed he had no desire to change, and hence reaching out to him forced him to recoil from her. Disputing with him over fifty taka seemed so trivial now that he wasn’t at home. Nondita would allow her grandson to come to her in his own time. She had to, to keep things together. She couldn’t bear to witness him leaving the way his mother and father had. Then again, she worried he’d leave the same way his parents had done—without a trace. Having lost her appetite, she skipped breakfast and tried to finish sewing a shirt, but her fingers slipped away from the sewing machine. The stitching had gone askew, and her legs started to shake until she calmed down. Nothing serious, she said to herself, only nerves getting the better of her. Luckily, the stitching hadn’t gone too far off the mark, and she managed to repair the error. A few hours later, ready to deliver the clothes, she heard yelling in the compound. As well as the leaking toilets, the four water pumps everyone shared had gone dry. They’d have to wait for a plumber to come out to inspect the problem. Continued neglect from the rent collector and contractors, she knew, would plunge the compound into greater disrepair, the regrettable fate of most living quarters in Dhaka with faulty electrical lines, dry taps, and clogged drains. It would be pointless for the residents to relocate elsewhere as they’d face the same old problems, perhaps even worse ones.
“We need water to wash clothes! Who used all the water? Was it you?”
She felt a big fight would erupt. The men bickered amongst themselves about the lack of water, and somehow the women got caught in between. Nondita quickly hid the two vessels of water in her room behind the closet in case anyone broke into her bungalow and demanded water. The last time the water pumps failed to work, a mother-in-law in the compound beat her daughter-in-law so severely the unfortunate woman lay incapacitated for a whole month. No one intervened or informed the police, not even the woman’s own husband. In such moments, Nondita kept herself to herself. What good would it do to get embroiled in everyone else’s business?
“We need to wash and eat, and without water we can’t do anything!” another woman cried. Nondita made her way out quietly, leaving everyone to bicker amongst themselves. She’d see to it Jeetu Ghosh knew about this problem and did something about it. On the bus, she reminded herself she’d planned to visit Kishor’s college to check how he was doing with his studies and have a word with his teachers to suggest they have a private word with him about his future. The college principal notified her that Kishor had been expelled.
“Your grandson, Mrs. Banik, hasn’t been in college for two months,” the principal said in his office. “I’m surprised to see you here. Kishor told us his grandmother had passed away.”
“I see,” she said.
“I am sorry. We did believe at first he had a lot of potential. I’d advise you to talk to him, see if whatever is troubling your grandson can be resolved before it’s too late. We don’t want another young person to become lost in this city.”
“Thank you anyway,” she replied, sounding distant. “I apologise for wasting your time.”
The sun beat down, not a cloud in the sky, and Nondita stopped by the railway station for a cold drink and a piece of cake. She'd never been anywhere out of Dhaka and thought one day she'd get on the train and visit somewhere new.
Her left leg began to shake but she refused to allow it to get the better of her. She resisted what the principal revealed to her. She tried to think he’d mixed up Kishor with another student. It couldn’t be her grandson; she couldn’t accept it was him. The sun beat down, not a cloud in the sky, and Nondita stopped by the railway station for a cold drink and a piece of cake. She’d never been anywhere out of Dhaka and thought one day she’d get on the train and visit somewhere new. There was no point worrying about Kishor this moment. She had clothes to deliver to her clients, and it wouldn’t be good for her to appear upset in front of them.
The smell of fresh nimki, a savoury snack from the kitchen of one of the homes, made her mouth water. She tapped on the door. A female servant of the household greeted her and told her she couldn’t enter the house.
“Don’t come in any closer,” the maid warned. “The mistress of the house won’t permit it. There’s cameras on the wall so she’ll see you from the house. She’ll only kick you out.”
“I have your mistress’s shirts.”
“Give them to me. I’ll take them to her. You stay where you are and I’ll get the money you’re owed.”
The maid had her wait for longer than usual, and Nondita could not find a spot of shade to stand in. She massaged her left leg while she waited, and fifteen minutes later the maid reappeared with the clothes and said nervously, “The mistress said she won’t pay you.”
“These shirts don’t belong to her husband,” she said. “Here, you must have mixed up the order.”
“I don’t know how this could be. . . . Believe me, I checked these properly. Let me have a word with your mistress.” Her eyes watered.
“Absolutely not,” the maid said, holding her hands up at Nondita. “It’s obvious you didn’t check. If you want my advice, you’re too old to be doing this. Why don’t you give up and save yourself the trouble. It’s sinful for a woman of your nature to be going out and about this way.”
For a minute, she stood silent, baffled over what she’d done. She must have given another client the clothes she should have delivered here. “I can’t believe I did this.”
“The mistress won’t pay you. She told me she doesn’t care about losing a few shirts. She’ll buy her husband some better ones. We don’t require your service around here anymore so kindly leave and—”
“I’ve never done this before. It won’t happen again.”
“Let me make this easy for you: we don’t want you here,” the maid said sternly. “If the mistress sees you’re lingering around, she’ll have you arrested for harassment. Save yourself the trouble and go. No one requires your cheap services in this neighbourhood. You are not wanted.”
She slammed the door in her face. Suddenly, Nondita felt dirty all over. She couldn’t afford to lose customers. Mentally she rehearsed what she’d say to Jeetu Ghosh, imagining the smirk he’d have on his face. She didn’t wish to lose control of herself. She’d worked hard to accrue her list of clients. If one household became dissatisfied, they’d denounce her name to other families in the area. She felt another part of her world might collapse. She’d known in a way this was bound to happen one day. When one person starts to reject you, they all do.
Nondita still had two more saris to deliver. She double-checked these. They were stitched properly. For each one, the women she visited paid her three hundred taka. She felt not all was lost, but for how long? The thought of each and every one of her clients not wanting her made her think about her situation carefully. She might have to go further afield, and that would only cost more money. She considered going to Burigana, where she still had extended family members, but decided against it. They’d only kick her out.
Two hours later, Jeetu said, amused, “Nondita, I can tell you want something, and I bet I know what it is.” He wiped a slick of semen off his groin with a flannel and removed a thick bundle of money from under his pillow. He licked his fingers as if he were licking dustings of sugar off the tip of them and counted the money, flicking crisp two hundred taka notes back and forth. He enjoyed the sound of the money as the notes rustled against one another. “Do you know what I often think, Nondita? I think what would happen to us if we didn’t have any money in our lives—where would we go and what pathetic lives we’d have. There aren’t that many places other than the gutter—I can tell you that for sure—so we’d all end up dying. It’s only money that keeps us alive. As long as you have money, you can be what you want and do what you want and no one can do anything to you. That’s the ultimate power of money. No one can harm you.” He licked his fingers again, delighted his money was safe.
“Is that so?”
“You forget I do know. No one in the whole of Dhaka realises this better than I do.”
“At one point in time I’d have disagreed with you, Ghosh babu,” she said blankly. “I’m beginning to think maybe there’s truth in what you say.”
“Now you’re talking!” he whistled. He pulled his pants up, hollered for the servant boy, and asked that he bring his ashtray and cigarettes. His naked chest glistened, and his oiled hair left a lubricious patch on the pillow. She thought about her husband but immediately pushed him into the back of her mind, hoping he wouldn’t surface in her presence to haunt her. The servant boy brought his cigarette pack and ashtray. Jeetu smoked, watching Nondita.
“Something’s on your mind,” he said. He blew a puff of smoke through his nostrils. “Come on, out with it, what’s bothering you my dear?”
“The toilets are leaking again in the compound and the water pumps were dry this morning,” she said, having finished dressing in her sari. “The residents are restless and angry.”
“I know about that. I’ll send someone to take a look tomorrow. No . . . it’s something else Nondita, I can tell.”
They exchanged glances and he didn’t take his eyes off her. He allowed the stretch of silence to expand between them, then spoke comically. “You tenants always complain because you have nothing better to do with your lives, and besides, why do you care if people complain? You’re the only one who comes to sleep in my bed. No one else has that privilege.” He paused, smoking the rest of his cigarette, then went on. “Since it’s you, I’ll see to it myself that the toilets and water pumps work properly. Happy now?”
Sharply, she turned to face him. “How much does a computer cost?”
“Around forty-five thousand taka.”
“Forty-five thousand you say,” she said, and her gaze wandered away from him.
“Yes. Have you ever laid your eyes on that kind of money, Nondita?”
She didn’t reply instantly. “Could you loan it out to me?”
“So that’s why you came. . . .”
“I want to buy my grandson a computer. He needs one for his studies.”
“A computer for that useless dog! He won’t value it. You waste your efforts on him.”
“Even if that’s true, it’s me that’s doing it, not you. So, are you going to give me the money or not?”
“What do I gain in return, Nondita?” Jeetu said, his voice lowered, dark. “It will take you many months to pay that kind of money back. You’ll be in my debt for years!” He snickered.
“So be it. Just lend me the money.”
Her face flared up. He grabbed her by the wrists and said coolly, “You’re stepping the line here. This is my home, and you know there’s a certain way I like being spoken to.”
The notion that white symbolised purity for a Bengali widow seemed laughable, a cruel joke.
He let go of her wrists. She stepped away from him, somehow defeated and miserable. They said nothing to each other for a moment. She wanted to cry, helpless over the fact that from everyone in the city, he was the only man she could go to. He didn’t move from the bed. Staring at him, she couldn’t differentiate whom she hated the most, herself or Jeetu. Somehow, she couldn’t piece together how she’d ended up in this position, but one thing she did know: things had not always been this way. In spite of being in bed with him whilst he quenched his desires, she didn’t feel her body as her own, it didn’t belong to her, and for a dreadful second she wondered if it ever would be hers. No matter how much white she wore, she didn’t believe it hid the stains on her body. The notion that white symbolised purity for a Bengali widow seemed laughable, a cruel joke.
“It’s not as if you have anything to lose, Ghosh babu. If anyone does, it’ll be me.”
“I suppose you’re right. I don’t have much to lose. You’ll still be coming to me. I’ll lend you the money.”
“You mean that?”
“I am a man of my word, Nondita. If I can get leaking toilets and faulty taps fixed, then I can do more for you.”
“Well, as you realise, I want my rent lowered and I need to give my grandson everything he needs.”
“If you say so, except one of my men saw your precious grandson in a gambling den,” he said slyly. “It seems your studious grandson has other extracurricular activities to keep him busy.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You will.” He smiled at her.
She put her sandals on her feet. Seeing her walk out, Jeetu said, “I want you here tomorrow, same time.” Dreaming about a tumour on her leg, even if it had been a genuine ailment of her limb, didn’t feel as bad as this. But as long as she had a roof over her head and wasn’t on the streets of Dhaka like numerous other widows, she’d be fine. She couldn’t bear the idea of reaching the end of her days without a home. If her husband could see her now, she didn’t know what his reaction would be. They’d stare, empathetic of the other’s situation. Strange, how a former relationship sprang suddenly in her mind and she saw herself getting old and haggard. Jeetu wouldn’t desire a wrinkly, old woman, and she had no idea how she’d look after herself. She’d heard of widows who starved because they couldn’t cook for themselves. Eventually, she’d have to accept that, and who could defy what god had already prescribed for you?
In the compound, a plumber came out to fix the leaking toilets and water pumps. In no time, residents formed huge lines outside them. For once in months, the residents were peaceful, orderly. She waited for her grandson to return. However he may be, his presence kept the house alive. She required his presence as a male member in the house so that people wouldn’t think badly of her. Kishor slogged in after sunset.
“What’s there to eat?” he asked. “I’m starving. I ate nothing in college.” In the kitchen, he lifted the lids from the pots then grimaced because she hadn’t cooked a hot meal.
“Why didn’t you cook? There’s no rice or fish.”
“I decided not to. Where did you say you were?”
“In college. Where else would I be?”
“Is that so? . . . I paid a visit to your college today, Kishor, and your principal told me you haven’t been to college for two months.”
He edged away. “I don’t have to deal with this. Forget the food. I’m off to bed.”
She smelled alcohol on him as he went past her and sensed that wherever he went was a black hole he’d dug himself into. At this point, he was too far down to escape. It seemed to her he’d slowly given up on the world and would end up being one of those young people society no longer worried about.
“You’re not the way you once were,” she said.
“That’s fine by me.”
“It just is. I’m going off to bed.”
“How can you go to bed? It’s only seven o’clock!” she said, raising her voice. He stood motionless. “I don’t understand, Kishor. You sleep too much, you don’t go to college, you might as well not be living.”
“Whatever. It’s better than you, bringing shame on us by sewing clothes for people who have more money than you’ll ever have. Isn’t it sickening that you think you’re above the rest of us because you earn a pitiful amount of money? At least I’m honest enough with myself to know how pointless it is to go to college. A degree gets you nowhere in life in this city except rotting away on the streets, but you walk around after sewing a few measly shirts believing you’re someone great.”
“I’ve tried to do right by you.”
“It’s not enough,” he said, “and it never will be.”
“How dare you! I work hard for the both of us. If something happened to me, you’d have nowhere to go.”
“That doesn’t matter. I don’t plan to live with you forever and deal with the burden of providing for you.”
She’d never struck Kishor, but this time she wanted to. She marched up to him, grabbed him by the shoulders, turned him round to face her, but couldn’t lift her hands. The contempt and disappointment she felt when her husband passed away returned.
"You're just an old woman who mends clothes, and if you're lucky you get a little taka for it but I feel nothing but shame for you."
He pushed her hands off. “You’re just an old woman who mends clothes, and if you’re lucky you get a little taka for it, but I feel nothing but shame for you.”
Nondita gazed at her grandson, realizing that what he’d said didn’t matter, nor did it feel true. She felt no need to weep or express any resentment. Underneath her grandson’s tough exterior, she’d caught a rare glimpse of someone who was completely lost. Maybe one of these days she’d get to him.
“Nothing you say concerns me anymore, because the path you’re choosing to follow will lead you nowhere. If you leave, I won’t stop you. I admit I don’t earn much money from what I do, and yes, sometimes I have begged to people, but I’m not ashamed of who I am, I’m not ashamed of what I do, and you’ll never understand that, Kishor.”
She left him in his room, realising it wouldn’t be terrible after all if her grandson didn’t live with her or look after her. She’d manage and, accepting that, she sat down by her sewing machine. Nondita wouldn’t allow herself to end up in a care home. There were other people around her in the compound, and if she approached them for help, hopefully they would. She’d try to become better acquainted with her neighbours, including Farida Begum; maybe they’d be able to help each other out in their own quiet ways. Nondita glanced down at her legs. They didn’t shake, and she felt confident she wouldn’t be dreaming of tumours any longer. Hearing a shuffling noise, she looked across, thinking maybe for once Kishor had come out to apologise. Instead, she saw the same black cat that’d irritated her before purring inside, but this time, rather than scaring it away, she approved of it roaming around the bungalow. What harm could it do? Unlike her grandson, cats didn’t smoke or answer back at you. She sorted out the bundles of thread, needles, and scissors, then reviewed her orders for the evening and the good money she’d make from them. Nondita continued stitching a pair of trousers because she wanted to and because within her something had finally been set free.
A special section devoted to International Literary Journalism headlines the March 2012 issue of WLT, including a fascinating interview with Anthony Shadid.
Table of Contents
International Literary Journalism
- ESSAY: "International Literary Journalism in Three Dimensions," Norman Sims
- INTERVIEW: "Impartiality Has Nothing to Do with Neutrality: A Conversation with Ervin Hladnik Milharčič," Leonora Flis
- ESSAY: "The Order of the Blind Camel," Maria Golia
- ESSAY: "Female Narrative Journalism in Contemporary Ukraine," Mariya Tytarenko
- INTERVIEW: "Reclaiming What Was Lost: A Conversation with Anthony Shadid," Matt Carney
- ESSAY: "Telling Stories in Contemporary Spain: A Survey of Women Writing Literary Journalism," Novia Pagone
- ARTICLE: "In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More," Empar Moliner
- ARTICLE: "The Pest," Rosa Montero
- ESSAY: "Searching for Truth: Arnon Grunberg's Literary Journalism," Agnes Andeweg
- ESSAY: "Buenos Aires, the Suburbs, and the Pampas," Pablo Calvi
- ESSAY: "Negotiating Nationhood through the Ethnography of “Literary Series” in Nigerian National Newspapers," James Tar Tsaaior
- "Marathons of Memory, Marathons of Life," Roger Robinson
- "Dark Side of the Manga: Tezuka Osamu's Dark Period," Rob Vollmar
- "Not Their Masters' Voice: Latin American Nonfiction," Will H. Corral
- "Filling the Unforgiving Minute: The Literature of Running," Roger Robinson
- Two Poems, Angélica Freitas
- Three Poems, Jacek Gutorow
IN EVERY ISSUE
- LETTERS/EDITOR'S CHOICE
- WHAT TO READ NOW: Greece
- CITY PROFILE: Havana, Cuba
- INTERNATIONAL CRIME & MYSTERY: "Credibility and Popularity in the Historical Mystery," J. Madison Davis
- OUTPOST: Paris, France