by Mehreen Ahmed
They sat by the lake.
Mila Chowdhury did. Papri’s fiancé Rahim Rahman did. They waited for Papri. Rahim, wore rimless reading spectacles. He took them off and looked at Mila with the bare eye. Mila felt uncomfortable. She made no eye contact, but she knew that Rahim continued to look at her. Mila was distracted by a host of flying foxes headed for an unknown destination. They flew self-organised in perfect harmony. A vulture swooped low by the lake and picked up food scraps left overnight by people. Those who may have picnicked here by the lake. Or had nameless yearnings for transcendence under the midnight stars and shimmering moonlight.
Such yearnings burned at the far end of an alley too. This place, disreputable for scandalous affairs, juxtaposed crudely to Mila’s, grandparent’s respectable House of Chowdhury, situated within a short distance in the same neighbourhood. Known as the fallen zaminders, or kings of a principality, their old money shielded them from being pushed out in the cold. It was not a bleak house. In their own right, they basked in the glory of being one of the most influential families in all of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Patrons of art and culture, they made sure that there were never any dearth of culture in this house. The members of the family paid visits to the local cinema theatres nearly every week, streaming the dashing, postmodern hero Waheed Murad’s top hits.
Many neighbours thought this house was a fun house; endless joy emanated from here. Every evening, a huge straw mat carpeted its front yard amongst the monsoonal tiger lilies and thorny roses; a secret garden grew hidden in the foliage of juicy berries and tall neem trees. Short of an oriental paradise, the image of an idyllic moon conjured a midsummer night’s dream, in which mad Puck’s touch sparked many emotions of tenderness and romance to boot. The members of the House of Chowdhury jostled tonight on the mat to listen to their youngest son, Ashik sing. He sang love songs; songs that would easily melt the hearts of many.
He surely ignited romance in one such woman, the neighbour Raja Hashem’s wife, bibi Khadijah. Bibi in the language meant ‘the wife’. Bibi Khadijah, the young mother of three, craved for Ashik’s company beyond the legal limits of friendship. Her own husband, failed to amuse her. And this provoked an unsavoury behaviour in turn. She moved further away from her husband and fell into an abyss of ennui. Only her love for this spirited youngest son gave her the thrill to live. Bibi Khadijah was a woman of great beauty, an enchantress by a long shot in the neighbourhood. She didn’t think that age mattered. Ashik was five years younger than her. He was only twenty-five and she, thirty.
When the House of Chowdhury woke up to Ashik’s songs, bibi Khadijah could not restrain herself. Regardless of the various moods exuded from those songs, melancholic or lively, she thought, he sang them only for her. His love songs touched every beat of her heart. The lyrics that I loved you so much that only the moon knew its depths. Whether or not, he sang them out of deference to her, or out of actual love, no one could tell. But as time rolled by, and time and time again, those very lyrics sung in her presence, were like a call of nemesis to her ears. They left her undone. Trying to stay confined in her own house was futile. Neither could she stop listening to the songs, which could be heard anyway, because of the close proximity between the two houses, separated by a flimsy gated wall. By any stretch of imagination, on a full moon, this garden reshaped into the mango grove in her mind, where the enchanted Krishna and his Gopis came down to play. To bibi Khadijah, they seemed to perform ritual dances to the magical tunes. At behest of her muses, she felt like a Gopi herself to the amorous god, whose open invitation awaited to resume romancing.
Such unbridled thirst pulled her towards the house like a star to a black-hole; it behooved her to respond to her senses. Songs, which made her feel beautiful. She felt whole in all those jewellery and the saris she wore. They made her forget about the chores and her children and the drudgery of a prosaic husband, Raja Hashem, who seemed to live in his own world anyway; like a happy idiot, oblivious to everything.
His name, Ashik, meant lover. Ashik couldn’t deny that he too desired the young mother, bibi Khadijah; the forbidden fruit, a mother of three, and married to the neighbour. They both knew that love neither understood, nor respected any boundaries. It was literally coveting the neighbour’s wife. However, nothing could or ever would obliterate the feelings they harboured for each other. Nor keep them away from their mischievous dates. The rendezvous? What other place, but the shady end of the alley. Just as well, the alley offered lovers like them some kind of recognition, a panacea to the souls, which cured them from all kinds of afflictions inflicted by society. A place where clandestine relationships thrived. Some were romantic interlude, others more promising. It was yet to be discerned, exactly how Ashik and bibi Khadijah’s relationship transpired.
Nevertheless, another romance blossomed right here in this house as well. A verandah enveloped the House of Chowdhury, whose privacy sheltered the lovers. Mila, saw it come to fruition. The hay-day of their lives, when the leaves of the guava trees trembled at the slightest touch of a pecking bird; its whistles whipped the core of young hearts; the agony of restive days and listless evenings; the sallow lantern didn’t quite reach the far side of the balcony. Where in this dim obscurity, another young couple sat in two cane chairs with their fingers braided into each other. This couple was not Ashik and bibi Khadijah, but a different pair of lovers from the same House of Chowdhury.
Her name was Lutfun Azhar, and his was Sheri Chowdhury. Lutfun, had just turned eighteen and Sheri, twenty. Cousins from their father’s side, they dated here at sunset every evening. They didn’t have to go to the alley, for theirs was a more legitimate relationship. Other members of the family recognised this relationship in tacit support which encouraged them further. Mila sensed the subtle sweetness in the air. She heard their words describe the nuances of love in quiet adoration for each other, summing up to heavy sighs, and soft murmurs. They also saw that their niece Mila, watched them without a din, but they smiled at her curiosity. They were not remotely bitter, nor concerned. There was no place for such negativity in their hearts, which oozed with the ripened juices of love.
Memories were always precious. Their telltale hearts told magical stories. Impossibly intense love stories; stories of Romeo and Juliet, and Laila and Majnu, which only inspired optimism. None of these tales ever happened concurrently. Never in the exact same sequence, nor in the same place. But in completely separate moments in history. Still, they spoke of the same profound themes of love in the sacred hearts alluding to no profanity. Invaluable tales gathered like a relic in the repository of the mind. Nostalgia heavy with gripe, rekindled. Good and bad entwined.
Lutfun was a virtuous women, kind and pious. She loved people unconditionally and her guileless smiles said it all. Her smiles beguiled everyone. She possessed a natural selflessness like the perfect Hyperborean land. Such innate endowments became stronger with every passing season. These were some of the qualities that made Sheri Chowdhury fall in love with her. The gentle lady that she was, bestowed her affections readily upon Sheri. When Mila eavesdropped on their conversations, they let her in on it. She stood there in the dark passageway and listened away to every story they told. She observed how they kissed, held hands and whispered nothings at soft twilights.
It all seemed like a fable to Mila. That this sort of kindness should prevail in pursuance of love. Utopia, at best, something so divine that even time didn’t or wouldn’t tarnish. These were exemplary instances. However, they also provided a rare glimpse into the natural order of things of what should be, but rarely is. Like the perfect sun or the moon, or precise forces of gravitational pull, such love could find itself a home in the celestial pantheon, but few and far between. Sheri could easily die for Lutfun, as did Romeo for his Juliet.
A cloud rumbled. Mila looked up at the sky and then at Rahim, who by now had put his glasses on. He looked out at the lake unmindfully to say, “I wonder what’s keeping her?”
“Hmm, don’t know. There’s going to be a storm soon,” she said. “What should we do?”
“I don’t know. At any rate, I don’t think we can sit here anymore,” he said. “Why not come over to my place. I’ve got my car.”
“Thaanks, I can walk home. My house is not very far,” she said.
Rahim looked at her tentatively. Mila knew, he wanted her in his car somehow. But she felt awkward. What were they going to talk about anyway? Money? Investments? Those things didn’t interest her. She looked up at the layered clouds against the vibrant autumn colours meeting on the edge of a dull horizon. Rahim kept a close watch hoping that somehow she would change her mind. But Mila’s passions lay elsewhere. She was the quintessential introvert, who pondered and observed the world around her. No one would understand, nor even care for her love of incessant rain fall. The thunder, and the swishes of the gusty winds were music to her ears. Losing herself in the mists and the opaque drizzles of a ponderous sky, in her nature.
Mila didn’t respond. He got into his car and drove away in moderate rage. She didn’t understand the reason for this rage. Why would someone remotely related to her get upset? Apart from the fact that Papri Khandaker was a close friend of hers, there were no other ties with Rahim that he should be upset. Mila’s refusal to get into his car, and then to his place wouldn’t be right without her friend being present here. Her role models, uncle Sheri and the virtuous aunty Lutfun, would not approve. However, bibi Khadijah and uncle Ashik may have, she wouldn’t know. At any rate, in both cases, love had to spring both ways that brought people closer. Not force, much less anger.
Bibi Khadijah and Ashik were just as passionate as lovers, as any other couple without a doubt. However, they would never be allowed to date in the house like Sheri and his girl-friend Lutfun. Despite the fact that Ashik was Sheri’s brother, Ashik and bibi Khadijah dated far down by the alley with all other shady couples with equally shifty commitments. At Ashik’s beck and call, bibi Khadijah came out at nights after putting her children to bed. When her husband sat with the boring evening newspaper, she snuck out courageously to meet her lover, over by the designated lover’s den.
The lovers’ den was a cave in a small mountain conveniently located out of sight. At night time, lovers enshrined the cave with glowing candles. This was the moment when the cave became a sanctuary, illuminated with impassioned dialogues. This wasn’t the place for Sheri and Lutfun at all, but only for the strays of the moor. Ashik Chowdhury wasn’t one. He belonged to the same House of Chowdhury, a house held in high esteem. This dungeon was not the most sought after place for a lover like him. But his circumstance decreed otherwise. His amounted to an unsightly affair, a profanity, not seen in the same light of reverence as Lutfun-Sheri.
What difference did it make anyway, Mila thought in circumspect. Why should society condemn the types of the Lady Chatterley or the Madam Bovary? Were they any different from the Laila-Majnu, and the Romeo-Juliet kind as far as love was concerned? All’s fair in love and war, wasn’t it?
It depended on how those songs that Ashik sang on evenings really affected the people in the house. Surely, for Lutfun and Sheri, they meant love and worship of utmost purity. A union of a celestial pair sanctioned by society, favoured by their elders. Every other evening, they sat beside one another on the same mat under the watchful eyes of their elders, holding hands in perfect bliss, exchanging tiny, coy smiles. Whereas, bibi Khadijah, would push herself in through the gate and hover at the fence darkly, like a dithering shadow, waiting for a welcome cry from someone to join the party on the mat. Although she and Ashik were Cupid blind as any one else in love, the elders of the House of Chowdhury looked upon her as nothing other than the beautiful, lush wife of their quiet neighbour. Clueless to their affair, however, this the family would never have condoned, if they knew so much as a word.
Her husband Raja Hashem hardly spoke to anyone, but commanded huge respect in the neighbourhood on account of it. A learned man, Raja Hashem couldn’t understand his wife’s fantasies. To him three healthy meals, clothes, and ornaments sufficed; from head to toe, bibi Khadijah was covered in jewellery like a Queen. But her insufferable ennui was hard to break. No one could. Not even her own children, apart from Ashik, could break the bounds of ennui. Although she couldn’t go even remotely close to Ashik in the House of Chowdhury, she found a full life here in-spite of it, away from the stifling atmosphere of her own. For her husband wouldn’t notice her great beauty, let alone compliment it. Deep in his studies, he lived a life of the mind, a scholar, until one day something knocked him.
One night, he decided to not to read his news-paper, but to engage with his wife. As he looked for her in the house, she appeared no where. He thought, maybe, bibi Khadijah was with the neighbours, but he wished she were here tonight. As the night progressed, he gradually fell asleep. However, when he woke up in the morning, she was still not in bed. Her side of the bed had not been slept in all night. Suspicion didn’t enter his mind, because he was not the sort. But when he entered the dining room for breakfast, he found his children sitting glumly without a mother. As soon as they saw their father, they broke down in tears.
Raja Hashem now feared the worst. He walked over to the verandah, and found a note pressed under the heavy volumes of War and Peace on a feeble cane table by the red rhododendrons. He saw it and swiftly pulled it out from under the two tomes. It read very clearly that Raja Hashem should not try to look for her as she had run away with her man next door. Was this some sort of a joke or serious elopement? Indeed, but as Raja Hashem struggled to grapple with the reality of the situation, he read the note a few times, and then looked at his children’s innocent, sad expressions. They had no idea where their mother had gone, let alone, why she had gone. They stared wide-eyed at their befuddled father, who was at a loss for words himself. Then he grabbed his children in panic and embraced them with all his heaving heart.
It was bold, but no act of nobility. Raja Hashem’s sanctimonious life, or at least how bibi Khadijah would interpret it, did not keep her ennui at bay. What Ashik could give her, Raja Hashem could not. The couple settled at the far end of the alley, without the blessings of the House of Chowdhury. Their elopement did not make his family proud. It caused such a turmoil, that Mrs. Chowdhury, the mistress of the house had to disown him. And Ashik, forced to part with the glory of the House of Chowdhury, thought this sacrifice justified his love for her. If Romeo-Juliet, Laila- Majnu could transcend to a metaphor for love, theirs could too one day. In the heart of it, he felt that they were equal. They had more in common, than naught. Because, in terms of the society’s rebuke, none found a sympathetic hearing from any quarters. Conversely, Lutfun-Sheri thought of themselves as the proper embodiment of Romeo-Juliet, since they fared so well. But the definition of the real McCoy of the world remained indeterminate. Because, love machines like Lady Chatterleys always justified their affairs not futile, but as just as sacred.
About the author:
Mehreen Ahmed is an internationally published and critically acclaimed author. Her books have been nominated for Aurealis Award for Fantasy Short Story/Novella (2015), Ditmar Awards for Best Novels (2016), and Author Academy Awards for Global Award Literary Merit and Publishing Excellence in Historical Fiction (2018). She lives in Australia.