Title of Book: A LIST OF OFFENCES
Genre: Women’s Fiction
Author: Dilruba Z. Ara
PURCHASE A LIST OF OFFENCES HERE
Daria, the heroine of the book is born under unusual circumstances that cause the people of her small village to gossip; yet as she grows she becomes an intelligent, sensitive and spiritual beauty that one feels is destined for a perfect life. After a flood, a boy is found on the bank of her river. Daria’s parents adopt the boy, and Daria befriends him. As they grow Daria begins to inhabit Mizan’s dreams and thoughts, but a sudden meeting with anglophile Ali Baba brings everything crashing down around Daria. She forgets her upbringing and falls madly in love with him and after her hasty wedding, she moves to Baba Lodge and is brought into the suffocating life of Ali Baba and his family.
Here she lives a life unloved and psychologically abused until she gets pregnant. Now she begins to hope that finally her potential for love, luck and happiness will be realised through her new-born child. Yet relations between Daria and her in-laws deteriorate further. Daria finds herself torn between the religious mandate of Islam to stay with and obey her husband and the call of her intellect and instincts to flee and forge a different life for her daughter.
A Bottle of River Water
A whisper went round the little village of Gulab Ganga during the days around Daria’s birth. It said, “Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, defied God when she refused to give up the thought of having a daughter.” She had her four sons, three miscarriages and one stillborn daughter. But yet she couldn’t accept the idea of not having a daughter in her lap. When the most trusted doctor in the neighbourhood advised her against trying to get pregnant, she, like many in her dilemma, decided to get help from supernatural sources. The road there would be reached by means of a man, who claimed to be a Pir, a spiritual person. He lived on the outskirts of Gulab Ganga. A good many people went to him to catch cattle thieves and poachers, a good many went to get better crops, a good many wished to be cured of some incurable diseases, and a good many wished for a male heir to carry on the family name. And on rare occasions, someone would actually call on him to get a female child; to light up a family with only male offspring. And this was partly true in the case of Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, but mainly it was because she felt half a woman without a daughter.
It was exactly one year before Daria’s birth that Jharna Begum woke up on one occasion at a time that was neither morning nor night; night’s blackness was slowly oozing away at the touch of first light. A soft and transparent time, that could be called morning-night. She washed herself, took a bath, said her morning prayers, read some verses in the holy Quran. Then on an empty stomach, wrapped a shawl round her shoulders, opened the safe and took out a bundle of notes. Some fresh and crisp. Some dirty and limp. She put the money in her bag and sidled out of the room. Azad Chaudhury, her husband, was away on business and that suited her very well, because he wouldn’t have approved of her going to meet a Pir, whose credibility was dubious. The rest of the family was asleep. She took a deep breath, crossed the front veranda and stepped down onto the ground along the left gable of the house. She continued to the stable that was further off in the same direction. There she met the servant boy Gafur and the housemaid Gulabi. She told Gafur to keep guard on the house for an hour. After a moment, she was seated in the coach with Gulabi and the coachman, Abdullah, on her way to the Pir, the saint, who was to serve as a link between her and the supernatural powers.
It was a humid morning. The ground was covered with dew. On the horizon white haze rolled softly, blurring the contours and colours of everything. Beyond that the river sparkled in the first glow of the morning sun and some fishermen cast their nets in it; fishnets shimmered in the air like dewy cobwebs before falling into the water, but the haze blocked the view. The wagon picked its way in between the chequered boards of rice-fields. Sometimes it rattled; sometimes it thudded on the bumpy earthen road. Jharna Begum sat erect, her lips moving. Most probably reciting holy verses. Alongside the road some peasants were already at work. Some bent over the water-covered field to set rice plants, and some ploughed; peasant feet submerged up to the ankles in the muddy water; peasant hands disappearing under the water to transplant rice seedlings.
The Pir (said to be) lived in a small hut on the outskirts of the village. It was made of mud and bamboo canes with a sloping hay roof and stood in the middle of beaten ground surrounded by sprawling bamboo clusters that were partially veiled by the grey mist. From behind the hut an old mango tree spread its branches over the low roof. Haze lingered among the foliage of this tree as well, but just above the roof Jharna Begum could discern some baby mangoes. Grey-green, round and wet, silently growing out of hardness. A skinny hen walked on the patch of ground in front of the hut pecking at whatever it could find; a few dragonflies sat lazily on a tuft of withered grass-straws. A breeze blew, carrying a scent of water and river. The mango leaves hummed. The bamboo leaves whispered. Gulabi remained standing on the spot. Jharna Begum took a deep breath and approached the hut.
The room was murky in spite of the hurricane lamp that hung from the ceiling. Soft shadows danced on the walls as the tongue of the flame flickered inside the soot smeared glass. Major parts of the walls were plastered with various pictures from the holy city of Mecca. High stepping camels and Bedouins, dusty date trees around oases, scalp-shorn-men — pilgrims-in-white, women — pilgrims-in-black, the black holy stone and the white gathering around it. The only window was covered with a drape. In one corner out of a small brass bowl rose a fine stream of smoke; scents of sandalwood, camphor, incense and rose essence. An earthy dampness hung in the room.
The Pir was seated on the floor on a mat. He received Jharna Begum with due respect and asked her to settle down opposite him. She was hesitant; nevertheless she obeyed him as though in a trance. Perspiration gleamed above her lips, studded the tip of her nose, and her forehead. It grew in her armpits and between the fold of her breasts. A sweaty fear crawled down her back and she swallowed a lump of saliva. Words pounded in her head, while her stomach was hard like a tight fist. But she wouldn’t give in to her nervousness. So, gathering up her courage, she began to talk. Her voice trembled, tongue dried out. Words came out of her tense mouth; first staccato and then woven together into meaningful sentences. The man murmured and nodded.
After half an hour when Jharna Begum took the coach home, the sun had risen to a higher level in the sky. It was white. The haze had resolved into a fluttering piece of transparent cloth. She put her chin on the windowsill and looked out. Windblown ringlets danced on her temples. Her eyes saw the pale green rice plants, the mud coloured peasants with their mud coloured feet and hands under the muddy water, the tilting wicker-hats on their heads, the pelvic zone of a cow that lifted its tail to drop some dung, gleaming sun on the tails of diving kingfishers, and the shimmering river beyond; but with her heart she saw a baby girl. A baby girl in her arms. In her hands she held a green bottle. A bottle filled with enchanted water. Water, which would help her to mother a baby girl. Now she just had to ensure that one of her servants collected natural water for her by pressing the brim of an earthen pot against the stream of the river. Seven Thursdays she would bathe in that water eked out with the enchanted water she now had in that tiny green bottle in her hands. Imagine getting a baby girl! To get a baby at such an age! Forty years! God, Allah, the almighty. At such an age one should only wait for death to come. At such an age it was entirely legitimate to die, it was a well-acknowledged die-able age. But instead she was preparing to give life to a new human baby. A baby girl. Jharna Begum felt a mysterious wave of contentment sweeping over her. While the morning breeze, now crisp from the warming sun, fondled her face, she smiled. Like a child who had found the very bottle with the genie. She held the precious bottle tenderly. Azad Chaudhury was, of course, a little bit worried about his wife’s sudden obsession with the matutinal baths on Thursday mornings. But he decided to humour her. And therefore, he even went to bed with her as per her wish after her ritual baths with that magical water. They built and furnished a small room in the furthest end of the dwelling. The rest of the family members were told that Jharna Begum’s physical condition demanded total seclusion from daily life. Initially Azad Chaudhury had thought it would be unnecessary to build a new room only for seven Thursday mornings. But, soon, very soon, he changed his mind. For it didn’t really take him too long to realize that he enjoyed every second, every infinitesimal fraction of each second he spent there together with his wife. In secret they called this room ‘the love nest’ (even though the phrase sounded banal in their experienced ears). Within the four walls of that nest after twenty years of marriage they once again experienced the ecstasy of newly found love.
On those warm, fairy tale like mornings Azad Chaudhury, propped against the pillow, would look at his wife’s slender body and think that he had never seen her like that before. He licked her feet, her soles, her insteps, kissed her on her kneecaps, tickled her belly, felt the perfect curves of her round shoulders against the cups of his large palms, oiled her with coconut oil, and rubbed her gently. Her eyes would darken, the world beyond the dark blue curtain on the window would slowly brighten but inside they would be lost. She touched his hairy stomach, tugged at his nipples, let her nails run up and down across his body hair and create parallel lines like a farmer furrowing a land and leaving plough marks. Both would have gooseflesh on their skin, his Adam’s apple would move restlessly and she would swallow saliva. They would fondle each other, taste each other’s secret smells and drown in each other’s eyes. His warm palms against hers, his fingers intertwining hers, the soles of her feet rubbing gently on the back of his feet they would reach the climax. Later during the course of the day they would recognise each other’s private smells in their nostrils, and they would exchange furtive glances.
Considering all this passionate lovemaking, it was probably not a miracle that Jharna Begum soon got pregnant. But with the realisation both she and Azad Chaudhury reacted as though a miracle really had happened. As though the genie really had escaped from the green bottle to fulfil their dreams. They started to cry and laugh. They cried for a moment, laughed a moment, hugged each other, cried again, licked each other’s tears and lay down. They slept a while, woke for a while, embraced each other, whispered soft words and fell asleep again. When the pregnancy advanced, Azad Chaudhury saw to it that Jharna Begum was not in want of anything. He heaped over her gifts and tenderness and fulfilled all her strange whims, such as those which only suit a
If she wished for hot peanuts with salt and pepper, she was served that; if she longed for roasted green mangoes blended with crushed red chillies she was given that too. If she craved for ripened tamarinds those were also procured. One midnight she woke up and declared that she must have grilled Ilsha fish, alias silver fish. Now this fish is famous for its silvery scales, and when it comes to taste, it’s absolutely delicious.
But, unfortunately, it was not the season for this fish. Still, early the following morning Azad Chaudhury himself paid a visit to the nearby fishing community. He held out a leather pouch filled with coins (silvery and golden) and said that the one who was able to catch a couple of Ilsha fish before the next dawn, would be rewarded with the bag and its entire contents. The fish was caught, grilled and served on a silver platter at dinner. The dish so suited Jharna Begum’s taste buds that soon it became a permanent part of the family’s meals during the rest of Jharna Begum’s pregnancy. She was contented, and into the bargain a handful of fishermen got slightly richer than they had bargained for.
The Neighbourhood Talked.
On winter evenings snuggling in homemade quilts the villagers huddled around outdoor fires under the gaze of stars. They smoked hookahs, ate grilled sweet potatoes and whispered tales. Witchy tales. Wintry tales. Tales spiced with the chill of winter evening. Painted with the vibrant colours of the fire and cinders in the middle of them. They fed the fire with reeds and kindling that cracked and died in the flames, and they fedtheir ravenous minds with fabulous tales about Jharna Begum and the baby that was thriving in her belly. Before long it was heard that Jharna Begum was obsessed with the fish dish because the man who had given her the green bottle with the magical water, had proclaimed that she would give birth to a girl with hair the colour of ‘silver fish’. Some said she was carrying a mermaid, half-fish, half-human. Pregnant women avoided the sight of her in fear that the very sight of her might hamper the growth of the babies in their wombs. It was strange how one strange rumour gave birth to another, stranger one. Some even claimed that Jharna Begum really possessed the bottle with a genie. It was, however, poor Gulabi who had to face all these torpedoes of vicious remarks about Jharna Begum’s pregnancy. Whenever she showed herself outside the house boundary she was attacked by the neighbouring women. They relentlessly pestered her with ridiculous questions and soon she started to complain about these gossips. Jharna Begum listened patiently to her. But dismissed her anxiety with hearty laughter. Without appearing to be condescending or angry she completely disregarded the complaints and left Gulabi speechless, and as usual continued to send the servant boy, Gafur, to the fishermen to
get the fish every morning. The fish was prepared and cooked under her supervision. When she ate it, she ate it with such relish that soon Gulabi and others realised that it was no use trying to change her craving.
The four boys — Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi — who were between eight and twelve years old, had not yet the slightest idea why their father no longer took his usual trips to the other parts of the country. He was always at home. Only they continued as usual. They went to school, read the holy Quran every Thursday, did their home-work, played with one another, fought with one another, and when angry, railed on one another. Gulabi saw to it that their nails were clean, hair oiled, hands washed; that they had milk warm from the cow for breakfast, and that
they turned in on time.
Daria was born on a bright day. It was towards the end of May, just before the onset of the rainy season. The time was precisely twelve o’clock. The sun was hot and cruel. The sky was absolutely white and so was the baby girl’s hair. It was white. Silvery white. Alarmingly white. Very white. At the sight of the hair colour, a scream died in the bewildered midwife’s chest and at the same time her bladder gave way, making her thighs wet. The midwife’s face was glistening with tears, but she was struck like a statue, as though fixed by the mesmeric eye of calamity. Kneeling down between Jharna Begum’s legs, she held Daria’s tiny body in her hands, her head bent over it, her hot urine collecting under it, the navel cord still hanging loosely down the vagina of Jharna Begum. The whole thing was something akin to a scene at an altar.
And Gulabi, who had been witnessing the scene with a hurricane lamp poised in mid-air, took a while before she could even begin to grasp the nature of the incident; the stench from the urine smelled old, contaminating, of grief and troubles. Gulabi shuddered and gasped as the true scandal of the incident swam into her consciousness. She stood dumb-founded for fully two minutes before returning to her senses. But, once out of her perplexity, she hastily placed the lamp on a bedside table, bent down, cut the umbilical cord, and snatched Daria out of the midwife’s baffled, rigid hands. It was then Daria gave her first cry, relieving all others, and also shocking the midwife back to reality. Gulabi cleaned Daria thoroughly, even her nostrils, before swaddling
her in a soft piece of cloth to put her to her mother’s nipple, where milk had already started to flow. And the midwife, soiled by her own urine and the refuse from Jharna Begum’s uterus, withdrew to a corner.
Even in those days the dwelling house was two storeyed. The walls were made of bricks and the flat roof of corrugated tin. The rooms stood in a row one after another. Two deep verandas ran along the front and rear side of both stories, and a wooden flight of stairs connected the back veranda to the first floor. A small patch of land separated the main house from the kitchen while on the front was a rather big patch of land. There grew fruit and flowers, papayas, mangoes and jackfruits, bananas and coconuts, tuberoses and jasmines, marigolds and land lotuses. Today the flowers glimmered in the sunshine and it was impossible to avoid the numbing sick-sweet aroma emitted by the sweating jasmine flowers. The mango trees were filled with mango blossoms. The boughs on the jackfruit trees bent under the weight of the fruits. The sugar bananas, very yellow, waited expectantly to be harvested. Hot green leaves sheltered the buzzing bees. Blue bottles
hummed. Crows and jackdaws feasted to fulfilment. It was a hot, humid and fruity atmosphere as in a green house.
The climate in the birth-chamber was somewhat cooler in comparison to that of the outside world. The grey cemented floor and the bare white walls were cool; the room was clinically clean just as a birth-chamber should be. The doors and windows were closed making the room half-shadowy. And to add to its clinical element it smelled of camphor, incense and rose water. Daria’s Nanu (maternal grandmother) Salma Begum and Fufu (paternal aunt) Fatima sat in one corner. They too had temporarily lost their speech at the sight of the baby. But the child’s scream readily brought them back to the present. And both of them began to recite Quranic verses with such gravity that an outsider would easily have mistaken the room to have been designed for mourning. Surely you mourn for the deceased in a hospital room, and you rejoice for the newborns. Today of all days Jharna Begum would have liked to rejoice at her daughter’s arrival, she would have liked to sing the praises of God, she would have liked to extol him boisterously, she would have liked to thank him. But these two women turned the room into a mourning chamber, they made the atmosphere heavy, gloomy. Unnecessarily sad. Was it because of the poor midwife’s mishap? Was that the reason, Jharna Begum wondered?
But it was only an accident. Or, was it because the child’s hair had such a rare colour? Jharna Begum sighed. Strangely enough, she didn’t feel any irritation but a feeling of familiar indifference. She knew that it was no use trying to make others understand her feelings. In the soft light of a hurricane lamp she looked tenderly at her daughter’s swollen cheeks, the closed eyelids, the red mouth and two tiny nostrils. Jharna Begum repeated with a contented voice: water-baby, water-baby. Then she sighed
Having performed the Jummah prayers in the mosque, Azad Chaudhury had just returned home together with the quartet, Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi. It was Gulabi who was waiting anxiously for him on the veranda. She told him about the newborn, took the prayer rug from his hands, and ushered away the boys to a different room. Azad Chaudhury looked very pleased and with a smile on his face he pushed opened the wooden door, and stepped inside. He halted for a few seconds in the semi-darkened room. As his eyes got used to the darkness he greeted his mother-in-law and then turning towards Gulabi said, “Open the window shutters!”
His mother in-law, Salma Begum, stopped murmuring. And so did his sister Fatima. There was a sudden silence. It took a while before Salma Begum shrieked in her frail, shrill voice, “You can’t let midday wind flow freely into a delivery room.”
Azad Chaudhury looked for a while at the old lady. His brown eyes were soft and polite. Without attempting to dispute the old one, he explained.
“Excuse me, Amma. But, I would like to see my daughter’s face in the daylight.” Salma Begum shook her head.
“Enough harm has already been done to the baby.”
“Like what?” Azad Chaudhury was surprised.
“The midwife…” Her words failed, she couldn’t bring herself to tell her son-in-law about the mishap. It embarrassed her. Her fingers clutched at the tasbhi in her hand.
Azad Chaudhury looked at the face of his mother-in-law, who looked beyond him. He then turned to Gulabi.
“What happened? What has the midwife done, Gulabi?”
“Abbaji…” Gulabi hesitated and then said, “nothing to worry about.
I’ve taken care of it. I’ve washed the baby. I’ve even cleaned her nostrils.”
“Nostrils!” Azad Chaudhury was even more puzzled.
“Yes, so that she shouldn’t remember the stench.”
“Stench of what?”
Gulabi was by now already regretting having said too much. She fell quiet. Not knowing how to answer she looked helplessly at Salma Begum.
The old lady shook her head and then said, “You had better ask your wife in private. As for the window, you may open it for a while. But it’s no good for a newborn. Midday wind carries evil spirits.”
Azad Chaudhury nodded thoughtfully, all but satisfied with the riddling answers. But he gave in, and once again asked Gulabi to open the shutters. The two shutters were opened. A sparkling parallelogram of sunlight fell on the floor. White walls became whiter. The cool floor became warmer. Azad Chaudhury took two steps towards the bed. He bent over it. There was suddenly that awkward silence again. Very silent.
Very tense. While the taut silence bounced against the four empty walls, Azad Chaudhury’s pupils widened, his spine hardened.
The child had violet eyes rimmed with black lashes, and she already had a pair of eyebrows shaped like the wings of a soaring gull. Her cheeks were chubby, smooth and fresh like any newborn. Her lips red as ruby. But her hair was silvery white. Ever so white. White like the tops of the Himalayas. Azad Chaudhury could think of nothing to say but murmur prayers. On his shoulders he felt his mother-in-law’s deep breaths, his sister’s attentive eyes. Unfamiliar thoughts were growing like weeds in his brain. He shook his head. Something must have gone wrong. Must have. A child can’t have silver hair. It’s not normal. Why?
Why? A curious sadness settled in his heart for the little creature in his wife’s arms, his little daughter, his little princess, born out of oneiric mornings. His eyes grew moist as he took up the girl and held her close to his heart. His eyes met his wife’s. The sun reflected in her eyes. She smiled.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Very well. Thank you!”
“Are you happy?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
He smiled, braving the pressure of the weeds that grew in his brain.
Hairy weeds, itchy weeds, poisonous weeds. All with long tentacles. Frightening. She stretched out her arm. He took it, and squeezed it hard.
Later the same afternoon he sent for Dr Nandi. Dr Nandi was as puzzled as others were at the sight of the child’s hair colour. But having checked the girl thoroughly he declared that it was a child, one hundred percent normal. Meanwhile, Gulabi was ordered to take care of the umbilical cord and the placenta. As instructed she dug everything down in the garden, and set a jasmine plant on the top. Having performed the task quickly, she returned to the room with some mustard oil in a brass bowl, tidied up the bed, spread a large towel in between Jharna Begum and the oilcloth under her, and then climbed up herself on the bed. There, kneeling down beside Jharna Begum, she oiled her palms and got hold of Jharna Begum’s belly. She held it tightly and at the same time with a rhythmical movement began to press out the air that had invaded the cavity from the afterbirth. Air came out of all possible holes in Jharna Begum’s body, while she complained about Gulabi’s hard grip.
Lots of Aaas and Uhuus! But, Gulabi proceeded in the same manner for an hour everyday during a period of exactly forty days. That was the time span taken by Jharna Begum to regain her flat and tight stomach so that no one could any longer believe that this belly had in its time accommodated a number of children.
This hot afternoon, when Dr Nandi had calmed Azad Chaudhury with his diagnosis, Azad Chaudhury sat down for a while and took a few deep breaths. With each breath he uprooted some of the twisting weeds in his brain and finally decided that it was time he demonstrated his gratefulness for being gifted with a daughter. He sent one of the men- servants to buy some rashgullahas, cheese balls drowned in syrup, from the village sweet-stall. When the man returned he ordered him to take the two finest cockerels from the pen and fill an earthen pot with some of the rashgullahas. He collected two sets of clothing and sent all these to the Pir Sahib, who had provided Jharna Begum with the green bottle with enchanted water.
Jharna Begum emerged from the delivery room — it was already evening — with the child in her arms, defying the rest of the women in the family, who advised her to remain there for forty days. They said she shouldn’t leave that room till her bleeding ceased and her uterus shrunk to its original size, the size of a goose egg. But Jharna Begum paid no heed to her concerned relatives. In the kitchen the old cook had already started to prepare chicken soup, an unspiced dish with horned fish and plantains and other so-called delicacies that normally are used to tempt an ill woman in childbed in this part of the world. Inside the room, by the window, Gulabi had prepared an armchair with a soft round pillow with a hole in the middle. It looked like the English letter O. It was supposed to ease Jharna Begum’s sore bottom when she sat there to enjoy her garden. But, as mentioned earlier, the woman didn’t feel at all ‘under the weather’. On the contrary, she felt incredibly fit and well.
Out she would come from that dreary room. Out she would be in the open air. And so she did, amidst protests and knitted eyebrows. Only when she needed to break wind or breast-feed the baby, did she seek out a private corner.
Hadi, Jami, Sami and Sadi, the four brothers who had missed their mother terribly during the previous nine months, and before that, those seven weeks with the seven special Thursdays, encircled her as soon as she came out of the room. They did not show much interest in the strange creature in their mother’s arms. One of them had a bunch of flowers, one had a ring made of hay straw, the third one had written down a verse from the Quran in black elegant calligraphy, and the fourth one had painted a picture of the setting sun on the river that flowed behind their house. These they presented to their mother.
Hadi, the oldest son, whose voice was breaking, murmured embarrassedly, “Ammu!” and gave her the bunch of flowers.
“Here, you’ve a ring, made by myself,” said the second one.
“It’s boring to sleep without having recited the suras (Quranic verses) with you,” declared the third and stretched out his gift.
“I’ve painted a picture for you,” announced the little one.
Jharna Begum dried a trembling drop of a tear with the back of her hand. Then she gave Daria to Gulabi, and took all her four sons in her arms; she embraced them, fondled them, showered kisses on them, ruffled their hair, crumpled their ironed shirts and murmured tender words.
That evening they all sat on low-legged stools around the low dining table to celebrate this family reunion. Daria was fast asleep in a wicker cradle that hung from the ceiling. The room was lit up with the yellowish light of a hurricane lamp that stood in the centre of the table. An imposing number of insects buzzed around the lamp like a live halo. Around this halo were porcelain bowls, set in a wider circle. They were filled with delicacies like hens in almond sauce, spicy wild duck, ruhufish chops and lobster in coconut milk. There were also various accompaniments like tamarind pickles, coriander chutney and green mangoes. The unusual dishes, which the cook had got used to preparing to gratify Jharna Begum’s pregnant palate, were no longer there. Neither
was the silverfish dish. Truly, none was missed by anyone. A cat circled and purred under the table — its black back arching, its tongue licking its own mouth. Perhaps it missed the familiar fish-smell. Who knows?
Every now and then its furry tail brushed several pairs of knees. The walls were embraced by the shadows here and there and a blend of aromas crowded inside a few pairs of expectant nostrils. Laughter and jovial voices were heard for a long time in that room.
But the following day the mood of the family was subdued. From early in the morning neighbours lined up to congratulate Jharna Begum and also to take a look at the newborn. Even though grandmother Salma Begum and Gulabi made a real effort to conceal the child’s hair by putting a hat on her head, one could yet catch sight of one or two glittering curls that rebelliously crawled out from beneath the edge of the hat, which in its turn brought out plenty of improbable comments from the hearts of the baffled visitors. “By, Allah. It can’t be a human child,” said someone.
“No, an angel,” someone answered, “I wonder if she has wings under the clothes!”
“Did you hear that the midwife wet herself while delivering the poor child?” exclaimed someone else. “Tauba” (a slap on the right cheek; an act that normally accompanies the word to ward off the evil eye).
“Tauba!” (A slap on the left cheek.) “Did you see her hair? It was all silver!”
“Oh, Allah, we knew it.”
“Her mother had conceived her by using paranormal methods.”
“She shouldn’t have defied God’s wish.”
“Didn’t we say it?”
“Poor, poor child!” Much as one avoided explaining the import of these pitiful words, it was all very simple. Such a vile incident at the onset of one’s life could only mean a pitiable life.
A bad sign!
An unlucky child!
Still Jharna Begum held her head high. It seemed she didn’t care what the people were saying. She went on talking, greeting and smiling her radiant smiles. Later, perhaps, she would think about these, but now her face betrayed none of her feelings. One of the maids picked her way through the crowd with a silver tray with a plate of dates and jar of cold lemon sherbet in her hands. The visitors helped themselves, casting furtive glances at the neonate. If they could’ve x-rayed with their eyes they would certainly have penetrated the hat to see the whole head. But this was not the case. They were to see only one or two silvery curls.
Nothing more. During the course of the day they came and went at will.
Azad Chaudhury worried about Jharna Begum’s apparent sedateness and the outcome of it. He admired her patience, but at the same time he again became aware of the growing weeds in his brain; hairy weed, itchy weed, poisonous weed. All his thoughts and feelings were muddled. He looked at his wife, the way she walked, held her head, the baby with silver curls in her arms — everything made him uneasy. He watched people come and go, he watched his daughter, two soft silver curls crawling out from under the pink hat, and suddenly made up his mind to forbid curious neighbours on the premises for a while. Salma Begum prayed silent prayers and Gulabi put a round kajal mark, as big as a pea on the forehead of the child to ward off the evil eye.
During the following few days the rumour spread like vapour; permeating every leak, every crack, making way, touring, detouring to every household of the little village of Gulab Ganga. It said that Jharna Begum had given birth to a silver-haired fairy child. But, unfortunately the midwife had befouled the baby. As the rumour travelled from
mouth to mouth several other embellishments were added to it.
Many incredible qualities were ascribed to Jharna Begum. While some continued avoiding the sight of her as if she were a witch, others began to treat her as a saint and claimed that she could solve their problems, cure their ailments, enrich their harvest etc. Queues were established in front of the gate, children climbed up the high wall and the high trees around it to get a glimpse of the saintly mother and her divine child.
It was a sheer circus; the beggars gathered to get an extra coin, the vendors crowded in the hope of good business, children frisked about,
and the old ones recited verses from the Holy Scripture.
Meanwhile, inside the big walls the little girl grew and transformed into a very ordinary child. Her hair had been shaved off and buried under the jasmine bush together with the umbilical cord. But the stubs of her new hair shifted colour. It grew dark and darker. Black with a luminous shade of purple-blue. Like a raven’s wing in the sun. And the violet of her eyes became coffee brown, dark brown, not quite black.
And by the seventh day, when there was to be a religious ceremony to give her a name, she had turned into a perfectly normal baby girl with perfectly normal features.
It was a Thursday. The Imam was the first to arrive there. With him he had a miniature copy of the holy Quran wrapped in a velvet cover, and a large knife. Polished and sharpened. Two fattened goats had been waiting to be slaughtered by this knife on this day. The Imam performed the task in the name of God in the yard in betweenthe kitchen and dwelling house. The goats were flayed and the good meat was divided into three mounds, the same amount in each. Three meat-mounds: one for the poor ones, one for the relatives and one for the day’s feast. The last mound was prepared on open fire with a fine mixture of spices. Rice was boiled in young green bamboo reeds. Parathas were fried, ducks were grilled, rashgullahas and steamed curd
Two colourful party-tents were set up in the garden; one for the males and one for the females and children. Gas lanterns were hung in the four corners of each tent. One special platform was raised for the Imam to lead the religious part of the occasion. A dozen men milled about hurrying, scurrying and getting things ready. Some set the tables, some arranged the chairs, and some swept the ground.
It was a warm afternoon. Neither torturing hot, nor pressing. Pleasant.
A wind blew.
A warm and nice river-wind.
Gulabi brought the little girl out when the sun had sunk in the west, and the sky was yellowish like water with a dash of turmeric, in the dull glow of its last rays. The baby was dressed in a chalk-white frock and a pair of white socks. Her scalp, which was now bare of hair, was topped with a laced-edged hat. From under the serrated edge of her hat, her two dark eyes looked curiously around. Around her soft neck, hung a garland of garlic cloves.
Gulabi walked past the gathering crowds to hand the girl to Azad Chaudhury. He took the baby, and went up two steps to the Imam who was sitting in the middle of the dais. By then, the guests were divided into two groups according to gender — each standing on either side of the parapet, listening to the Imam. Sitting on the dais, he read aloud a few selected verses from his Quran in the velvet coat, and then proclaimed firmly how very important it was for every Muslim to carry a name denoting his or her religious and ethnic origin. These were all very familiar words to the listeners, but still they couldn’t help but feel the solemnity of the moment as people always do on such occasions. It was all very quiet but for the Imam’s grave voice.
The child in Azad Chaudhury’s arms dozed off, but the function proceeded as planned. All suggested names were painted in different colours on a wicker-tray that was set in front of the Imam. By each name a candle was lit. Above, in the evening sky, the fair moon had become a little brighter by then and the stars shone like tinsel. As the candles melted, everyone made the utmost effort to catch sight of the tray; some stood on tiptoe, some asked the person in front to make a little room, someone else very simply took a chair or a stool and stood on it. They held their breath with eyes fixed on the candles. The twelve candles burnt, wax melted, wicks shrunk, smoke rose. The Imam’s face bent over the tray and took on a reddish tint. Candles began to go out. One after another. Slowly but surely they flickered and died in succession till only one was left. It stood there now dwarfed and fat, but still burning, illuminating the name ‘Daria’.
Jharna Begum’s face shone with delight, caught by the golden moon-dust-light. Long before Daria’s birth, during those magical mornings, she had decided to call her daughter Daria, for the word daria meant river. Daria was a child of the river, a water child. And, her own name, Jharna, meant source, fountain. Jharna, the source. Daria, the river.