First Place, Fiction
Lying in the curved arms of a gentle sleep, I am awakened by a muffled scream filtering in through my open window facing the west end of our compound. Scrambling out from under the covers, I peer through the iron grate into the shadows, past the mimosa tree and broken fence, where a row of outhouses framed by bougainvillea stand. That's where the peons of Nehru College live, employed by my father who is the dean of this prestigious institution. Nothing--nothing at first, and then in the dappled light, I see a lumbering silhouette--Rahim's, the head mali, the man who tends the lovely college gardens.
So why is Rahim gathering coconut fronds in the moonlight and tearing off the green leafy part, I wonder? He entwines the central veins into a helix and kicks a half coconut shell with his rough, bare foot; it clangs against a rusted aluminum bucket half-filled with rainwater. Entering the house, he draws the jute shades over the window. Wooden slats clatter shut. I withdraw, turn, pad back to my bed, squeeze through the small opening in the mosquito net and tuck myself in, hoping sleep will come, thinking what a strange night owl Rahim is.
The sun is streaming through the curtains when I awake the next morning. In the adjoining bathroom, I hear Farida strike a match. Slowly the wood and phosphorus odor is replaced by an almond fragrance as she warms oil for my mother's massage. Farida, Rahim's young wife, has been working at our house since Ashok, my surprise baby brother, was born. Through a crack in the door, I see Farida press my mother's legs, pull on each painted toe till it cracks, then move up her legs and inner thighs, up her abdomen, kneading the muscles down to their original flatness. I hear my mother's voice warning her as she reaches up, between and under her breasts, cupping them one at a time.
"Be careful; they still hurt," she says.
Wrapping my mother in a warm sheet to rest, Farida walks to the kitchen for hot water. I hear it slosh as it is poured into a bucket and mixed with cold water from the tap, and picture Farida's fingers testing, testing, till the temperature is perfect. Eucalyptus vapors escape from under the door, filling my nostrils. When Ashok awakens, Farida will modify this routine. She'll stretch her legs out into a makeshift cot, place Ashok on it, and work his arms and legs--up, down, crisscross, counting, ek, dho, theen, in sets of three; then she'll turn him over on his tummy and work his shoulders, elbows, buttocks, kneading them like dough, running her wiry fingers up and down his spine, then she'll flip him over again and work on his little face and penis. When she bathes him, she'll cake him with gram flour instead of drying soaps; she'll sprinkle incense over hot coals and hold him high in her arms as a fragrant offering to God. Some days, if there's time, Farida will massage my scalp, squeezing my head between her palms and stretching my neck, "a beautiful swan's neck," she'll say. I'll close my eyes and pretend I'm gliding on a moonlit lake. But at the stroke of 12, she'll stop abruptly as if, like Cinderella's carriage, she might turn into a pumpkin.
"Aiy, aiy," she'll say, rushing out the door. "My husband--he'll be home any minute. I must hurry--make his lunch."
Quickly covering her head with her sari, she'll flit across the compound like a monarch and alight on her doorstep, kicking off her sandals and pushing the door open with one graceful move.
Rahim is a quiet man who married Farida two years ago. She is his second wife; his first died tragically in their village after pouring kerosene on her sari and setting it aflame, he tells us, sadly. No one knew exactly why, but it had to do with children. Some said she'd miscarried and would forever remain barren. Others said she didn't conceive in the first place, and never would, because she confessed she'd once broken her fast during the sacred month of Ramadan. Heartbroken, Rahim says he fled his village to find work in the city.
A week later I hear it again. A cry, a wail, carried on a breeze, or so I imagine. Peering through the window I see nothing. Just coconut fronds waving, and somewhere in the distance, the rumble of thunder.
The moon is sullen tonight, pouting behind thick dark clouds. Leftovers of the shower that has passed dribble from the jambool tree onto our steep gabled roof. Drifting out on the fringes of sleep, I hear the faint echo of the midnight mail train. And then suddenly, I hear it--distinctly this time--a swish, a cry, a voice pleading, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'll try, those aching words in lilting Hindi, a language of lovers. I bound out of bed, ripping the stubborn mosquito net caught in the mattress, down the steps, and out the back door, onto the cold stone path to Rahim's house.
"Rahim, Farida," I call, "Open the door." I bang on the slats.
Moments later the door creaks open; he stands there in his crushed clothes, a kerosene lantern in his hand, a look of disbelief etched on his face.
"Missibaba," he says, "what are you doing here?"
Behind him I glimpse the vibrant colors of his wife's tie-dye sari, pepper-black splashed with red and mint-green. She wipes her face with an edge and stands behind her husband, her large eyes brimming with tears.
"And what are you doing?" I bark at Rahim.
"Nothing, nothing," he shakes his head side to side. "Just going to sleep."
"Don't lie," I hiss. "I know what you're doing. I've seen you near the coconut tree."
"I go to make peesab," he says. "Can't hold it till morning."
"No, you're not pissing." My heart races. "Those coconut leaf ropes. You--you are beating Farida. Aren't you?"
Rahim laughs out loud, shaking his head. "Nai, nai, baba, what are you talking? Beat my wife? Here, ask her; you ask her yourself."
He steps aside, nudging Farida over the stone threshold. In the moonlight, her skin gleams like burnished copper.
"Missibaba," she says sweetly, her eyes on the ground. "What are you doing here? It's drizzling; you'll catch cold."
"Didn't he beat you?" I point at Rahim's back. "Didn't he? Weren't you just crying? Tell me, tell me the truth."
Her face, framed by her sari, is like a nun's wimple. She lifts her head and sees my flushed face and fuming eyes. But her eyes are wide and dark like a doe's, lips parted as if she would say something, but then she stops and slowly, very slowly, shakes her head side to side, no, no. No, he didn't. He didn't.
For a long moment we look at each other, two 18-year-old anatomical sisters, two planets orbiting Fate in the universe. There I stand, rooted at her doorstep, unwilling to accept her destiny, willing her to fight. For herself, for me, for us. And I would be her Joan of Arc, leading her into a brave war of liberation. But there she stands, moonbeams falling over her head, looking at me, speaking not one word. Between us there is a chasm deeper than the Himalayan valleys.
"He beat you, didn't he?" I ask, softly. She lowers her eyes. "And this wasn't the first time, yes?"
Her eyes fill with tears. I take her hand and pull her out of Rahim's hearing range.
"Farida don't," I plead, "Don't let him beat you. Go. Go back home--to your village."
"But--but how?" she whispers, "Who? Who will want me?" The air is thick with despair. In the mango tree, we have awakened the crows. "He wants a son," she says softly, "a sweet boy like Ashok baba. But Allah--won't hear my prayer."
"And that's why he beat you? For a son?" She looks away. "You must run away," I whisper fiercely. "You must! Find other work."
Suddenly, her eyes light up like moons, as though she just might do that; yes, of course she would, and then just as swiftly it clouds over, dark, eclipsed with apprehension.
"I must--I must--go inside," she says, looking at her feet, slowly turning away. The door of her little house swallows her up.
And as I turn to leave, I see a jute shade fluttering in the adjoining outhouse, where Mohammed, another gardener, lives with his wife and two sons. And that's how I know that they know what happens here; everyone in this row of outhouses knows, and no one finds anything amiss.
The next morning, I rise early to wait for Rahim. I hear the shuffle of feet, a dull cough, the house key turning in the lock.
Rahim stops in his tracks. "Salaam! You got up early today?" He knocks off his worn leather sandals at the doorstep and walks into the kitchen, milk can in hand. He begins to pour out the milk.
"Listen, Rahim," I say. "I am going to tell my father what happened."
He stops short, missing the stainless-steel vessel. A little pool of milk collects on the stone counter. "What happened?" His breath still smells of liquor. "Farida told you nothing happened."
"That's true." I go up close and stand eye to eye. Rahim is a short man. Dropping his gaze, he concentrates on his coarse, cracked feet and toenails, black with dirt. "But she lied," I hiss. "And you lied, too. You beat your wife and you know it. Your neighbors know it. Allah knows it. But now--now I know it, too."
He looks up startled. "Missibaba, I didn't."
"Don't lie." I take a deep breath, speaking slowly. "You listen. If you ever--touch her again, lay one finger on her--even think about it--I will make sure Sahib fires you. You will lose everything--government house, job, pension. No money to smoke beedies, drink bhang, play cards. What will you do then, hah? What son will you raise?" I spit out each word, making certain it sticks. "And," I say, very slowly, "you know what? I know now why your first wife committed suicide. You beat her, too, didn't you? Beat her and blamed her for being childless. You drove her to it. You killed her."
As Rahim's face pales, I turn and walk quickly to my bedroom, not looking back. Pushing the mosquito net firmly under the mattress, I fall back into the pillows. That summer, there were no more nocturnal screams. The days were warm and sultry, the nights damp and cool.
A few months later my father was transferred to another town and we had to leave. Farida wouldn't go with us. "You must," I said. "Start a new life. Come, come with us."
"What will I do?" she asked. "How can I leave my husband?"
"But, he's--he's a monster," I cried. "He beats you. He blames you. Maybe he's--he's sterile. Maybe it's his fault you can't have children."
Farida shook her head. "No," she whispered. "I can't. Allah will be angry. It is Allah's will."
In my dreams, she is a moon, I the earth, revolving in a stream of blue air. The firmament is ablaze with jeweled stars, some dim and distant, some so near I can catch them as they fall and make a wish. For Farida, for myself, for all my sisters.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201