They say it started with a rumor. And so it did.
In the pungent city of Dhaka, as sugarcane sellers peddle down the street between Lexuses and rickshaws, the rumor cartwheels, car to car, mouth to mouth, ear to ear.
Gibraan Rahman, the Managing Director of Transcom International, is having an affair with his barren wife’s sister. His wife Shobha’s withered, drooping, malfunctioning womb can bear no fruit. Though wrinkled in grief, she pretends otherwise. “Rumor!” she says shooing the unwarranted espionage-reports away, “I have faith in Gibraan.” But in her locked bathroom, tears free-fall to cobalt blue floor tiles as she sits on the toilet-seat, benumbed at the travesty. When her voice betrays her will and explodes into a flood of shoulder-shaking paroxysms, she turns on the water faucet.
As Shobha’s body collapses in its own reproductive and sonorous betrayal, her sister Kiron’s body ripens like juicy, orange Joishtho mangoes that impatiently wait to be peeled and bit into. 29-year-old, well-endowed Kiron teaches G.C.E. O’Level Pure Mathematics to 10th graders in a private school. Her boys, between scribbles of sigma notations, desperately attempt to hide their vertical, sovereign phalluses under their textbooks. Her girls observe the hillocks, blush, and look down to concentrate on the blankness between blue margins. Kiron chuckles, turning her equally beckoning back to write on the blackboard. “Boys, boys, boys!” she sighs, amused, flattered. She remembers the night before when Gibraan, cupping her breasts in his hands said, “I can’t imagine a girl like you teaching something as dry as math. You should have done something softer — literature perhaps?”
Gibraan, they all say, is a good man, albeit a sex-fiend. Can he help it if his wife of 15 years is jinxed? He is a man after all. With man-needs and man-seeds. Black magic, they nod. Someone must have cast a spell on the couple. But what if it isn’t witchery? they argue. Then of course, Shobha is a cursed, sterile baanja — a sorceress who would siphon off Gibraan’s blood to quench her sterility. He should marry Kiron. And why not? Far better to marry the sister and stay within the family than seek solace elsewhere. In the teachers’ room, they talk — they whisper — till they hear the click of Kiron’s shiny black high-heels in the hallway.
Meanwhile, Shobha wonders. When did it all start? The day she smelled his tobacco-mint breath on the Kashmiri pillow next to her? Benson & Hedges, she knew. But mint? Two years ago she thought her husband was making an honest attempt to please her with his Wrigley’s breath. But even though her mind rationalized, her heart remained mute in its skepticism. It was gradual, she nodded to herself. Her instincts warned her of her kismet but it came upon her so slowly and soundlessly that she never could tell the when’s and where’s. Their sex-frequency fluctuated till it settled on once every two months. Her voracious husband who had once called the Physics department and declared an emergency during her lecture only to have sex from 2:00 p.m. till a quarter after nine, seemed oddly satisfied these days. Gibraan became more and more nervous, as though he were waiting for his viva voce from the Bangladesh Civil Service Exam. Innocent stimuli brought cataclysmic reflexes in him. Like the morning she touched him softly to wake him up and he jumped up on the Burma-teak bed screaming, “Naaa!” And then came the flurry of unasked-for-excuses and roll of stretched-out lies — so extrapolated that in her physicist mind, they crossed Hooke’s limit of elasticity and sagged with dubiousness.
“Shobha! I was stuck in Motijheel for two hours! All because Shabnaz’s red Suzuki was surrounded by hundreds of people. The police commissioner was called. It was a riot! Apparently a beggar on the street saw her through the car window and summoned his clan — and then one after another, the whole gang of flower-girls, beggars, and garment-workers circled the Suzuki.”
But hadn’t Shobha heard that before, in Hanif Shanket’s late-night show when actress Shabnaz eloped with her hero after a photoshoot? Puzzled, she goes to the servants’ kitchen and finds their chauffer, Adalat, nibbling at a pyramid-heap of Basmati rice topped with lal shaag. Who knows why his parents named him Adalat — the court. Perhaps they hoped their naming would plant the seed of legal ambition in little Adalat’s heart and before long, he would grow into a promising peon, a notorious stenographer, or better still the Lo and Behold almighty judge himself! O, the futility of farmer-dreams! Who knew hyperfertile Adalat, the father of six scurrying, bony chicks, would seek his fortune in S&S (Shahjahan & Sons) TruckLine and be first a truck-loader, and then Shobha’s driver?
“Yes, Madam!” He shot to his feet, ready to salute like army-guards.
“How was the traffic today?”
“Smooth, Madam, smooth! We got here in 10 minutes.”
“Did you stop anywhere on the way?”
“Did your Sir come straight home?”
“Yes, ma’am! But he, himself, took the car out for about three hours and then returned to the office. I drove him here after he came back.” His face turns bright red at his unwitting supply of surplus information — an involuntary hint that tumbled from his mouth and landed with a thud on Shoba’s chest.
In the passage next to the kitchen, Rehana, separating the bones from Hilsha to smoke it for dinner, hears Adalat and snickers. Rehana, the multi-purpose maid — cook-Abdul’s help, the laundry collector, the floor-sweeper, and the telephone-receiver — has more than once discovered smudges of undried semen in her master Gibraan’s white briefs strewn in the bathroom for her to wash minutes after his return from work. Nauseated, she dunked the briefs in the blue bucket of Jet-water and refused to touch them till the cum dissolves on its own. “Good! Madam will find out now!” she mutters to herself before a conical Hilsha bone pricks her pinky and blood-circles run down the blade of the gleaming steel-knife.
Meanwhile, Shobha, exhausted by clues to Gibraan’s adultery, heads to her study to prepare her lecture on Quantum Computing. She opens the file cabinets to look for notes from the year before but soon realizes that she is staring at nothing. She racks her brain and bites her nails, saying “What do I need to find? I knew just five minutes ago –” And here begins her future of temporary forgetfulness.
But rumor, though insidious and pervasive in nature, has a conscience. So when mouths whispered in Shobha’s ears about the rage of Gibraan’s adulterous hormones, they never revealed the identity of his concubine. Even though Shobha observes the same nervousness in Kiron, the heightened awareness, the large reflexes from below-threshold stimuli, and the magenta rash-like love-bites crawling down her neck, she never puts two and two together.
And while she blanks out in her lectures and students find her peculiar with a look of grandmotherly wistfulness on her rather young face, Kiron bursts and blooms like an infectious wildflower. But Kiron, too, has her moments of woe. And they have traumatized her ever since Shobha left for a weeklong conference on quantum coherence in mesoscopic superconductors in Tokyo two summers ago. It started with lust, with orgasmic interjections and promises (only to be broken seven hours later) that this would be her last time with Gibraan. Who knows when lust becomes love and love bends into evil curves? Curves of the body and curves of the mind? Thus, in all honesty and by definition, though rumor has a conscience, math-goddess Kiron has none. For Gibraan, however, as people reckon, the righteous lines are unbent.
Gibraan — though equally capricious at keeping pre and post-orgasmic, panting solemn oaths — moistens the cobalt blue floor tiles with his deep, humid, and sonorous sighs as he sits stiff on the toilet seat. He remembers the day he first saw Shobha, bargaining for four pounds of ground chicken with a butcher in New Market. The more she lowered the price she was willing to pay, the more the bearded butcher with chicken pox marks on his face stared off into space as though he were waiting for a Mohammedan revelation. He remembers the way Shobha curled up and sobbed in a fetal position next to him in bed, her nose pressed on her knee, her teeth sinking into her thigh — and how his eyes watered as he lay his head on her chest, her heart thumping in his ears. That was the evening when Dr. Akhtar informed them that Shobha’s uterus was too fragile to hold an egg.
Gibraan has many reasons to sigh. He sighs for planting his seed in the wrong womb and making the wrong sister pregnant. He sighs at the humor of a god who gets a resounding kick out of the sisters’ mismatch of contraceptive capacity. But what makes him choke in woe is the re-play of the day when he drove Shobha and Kiron to the clinic for the abortion.
“Who is this man, Kiron? Do you love him? Does he love you?” Shobha demanded. “Don’t tell me — but shouldn’t he be with you today?”
Kiron rested her chin on the window, her back toward Shobha (who now stroked Kiron’s nape to diffuse the stiffness), allowing the wind to draw the heat away from her red-veined, black-bottomed eyes. Her heart hammered loud and hard between turgid breasts, now fuller than ever with unwept guilt. Kiron bit her lower lip till it swelled as a pitiful try to de-palpitate. So choked was Gibraan with grief and confusion, that he rolled down his window to breathe only to be snapped at by Shobha who always feels too cold. Typically a graceful driver, he now had to concentrate all his might to shift the manual gear; his feet, too numb, yielded no effect on the accelerator. Even though the drive to the clinic seemed uneventful to both Kiron and Shobha, he had been careening out of control in his mind, where he imagined striking a lamppost and being hit by a two-ton Army truck that squashed him to death. However, even in his elaborate suicidal fantasy, he was overwhelmed by a gripping desire to save his unborn child. He wanted to kiss Shobha on her temple and take Kiron into his arms. Pale in his antagonistic desires, he left the waiting room to smoke Benson & Hedges in the verandah of the clinic. He stamped on the increasing number of stubs on the mosaic floor as hard and loud as Kiron’s palpitations, as though nicotine had induced the high tide of his testosterone in her presence and impregnated her with his sorry sperm.
That very night, the illusory accident came in his dreams and squeezed his windpipe till he flapped his arms and beat his legs on the bed for air. Shobha, sleepy-eyed, jolted up, groped her way in the dark to the fridge and brought him a glass of chilled water. Drenched in sweat, he stared at Shobha with dilated pupils, unable to recognize her for a good thirty seconds. The only association that he made in that time was between the dryness of his itching throat and the glass in Shobha’s hands. However, those thirty seconds of oblivion were a blessing when he could remember no one and nothing; his room, his wife, his sins, memory, and even himself — all vanished in sweaty convulsions and left him like a newborn, innocent, pure, full of sleep. He took the glass from Shobha and chewed, swallowed, and gulped down the water as though he had forgotten how to drink; water spurted out of the corners of his mouth and ran down his neck to soak the cotton blanket. All this had terrified Shobha and she had tried to convince him to go to a psychiatrist (which he refused to) — but now after almost forty such nightmares, her conditioned reflex to them only makes her whine “Not again!” in her sleep and jump toward the fridge. In the morning though, the psychic potential that all wives grow over fifteen years of marriage makes her arrive at the same conclusion: the dreams (which Gibraan never describes) spring from the roots of his infidelity. She knows why he shakes in his sleep and wrings his hands but wonders with whom he shares such a stifling passion.
Until tonight, Sobha’s blissful unknowing would only make her clench her teeth to rid herself of a pain that starts at her temple and cascades down her face, neck, shoulders, stomach, all the way to her toes. The ache of sterility, the anguish of the deceived; the moistening of the eye as she flips through channels and settles on the clip of plump, pouting bundles with pudgy, pink fingers rubbing red eyes in Johnson’s Baby Shampoo commercials. She drifts to a future that will not happen. The smudging of white-washed walls in her living room with Crayola; the cramming of strawberry Jell-O into the baby’s mouth; his coo in a Herculean attempt to talk. Her body starts aching for a son whose formative cells her frail uterine walls cannot hold. These days Shobha laughs too hard and much too often so much so that they leave her in blue hiccups of pain.
Gibraan comes home, smelling of a perfume that Shobha vaguely recognizes but cannot interpret. She is too dignified to ask, too humble in her infertility to question. Rehana brings garlic shrimp with spinach and boiled Basmati to the dining room. Guilt-wrapped Adalat sprints into the servants’ kitchen, pity for his Madam stark in his face.
At a quarter to eleven as Shobha splashes face-wash and dabs on age-defying wrinkle-resistant night cream. A dizzying, spinning explosion of black seemed to rip the ground open under her. She clings to the sink.
“Gibraan, I am not feeling well.” Nested under his arms, she whispers.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that all day I have been feeling that something bad is about to happen.”
“Shh — it’s only your mind.”
Shobha despises that. The apathy in his voice — his subliminal rejection of not just her reproductive tract and its incapacities, but his distrust in her viscera — in her mind — in her ability to think.
And that night, as the world comes to a standstill, Shobha wakes up in Gibraan’s moans.
“Kiron,” he whimpers, “keep our child. Don’t kill him.”
Naked, baiting Kiron and her unborn trespass into his dreams and squeeze his windpipe till he flaps his arms and beats his legs on the bed for air. His Mitsubishi swerves and hits a lamppost as a two-ton Army truck cracks his bones at the wheel. Gibraan stares at Shobha with dilated pupils, feigning recognition. He takes the glass from Shobha and chews, swallows, and gulps down the water as though he has forgotten how to drink; water spurts out of the corners of his mouth and runs down his neck to soak the cotton blanket. And before the thirty seconds of oblivion — the inability to process the truth to his room, his wife, his sins, his own memory, and himself — could run out, he sinks into a deep, blessed, childlike sleep, softly snoring away the joy of forgetfulness. It’s a shame or perhaps a blessing that he is too full of sleep to see shocked-blue Shobha, benumbed at the ground-spinning travesty, digging her nails into her skin to stop her body from betraying her will and exploding into a flood of shoulder-shaking paroxysms.
“Kiron,” she whispers, over and over again, hugging her knees bent to the nose, dizzied by the harmonic oscillation of the rocking chair. She unbends her knees and runs her fingers down her navel and presses the soft flesh below it. Somewhere sheathed under the stretch-marked skin rested the rusty fallopian that denied her husband of his guttural longing for a child.
They say it ends with first a revelation and then a rumor. And so it did. In the pungent city of Dhaka, as sugarcane sellers peddle down the street between Lexuses and rickshaws, rumor cartwheels, car to car, mouth to mouth, ear to ear. The newspaper-boy, running from window to window at the traffic light on bare feet sticky in the half-molten pitch of the street, screams in joy at the break of a story that would buy his pneumonic sister’s medicine. “Hear, hear! The story of two sisters, one hanging naked from the fan! One with the other’s man! Aajker taaja khobor — the fresh news of the day.”
Rumor whispers that Shobha was found by Rehana (who is now in shock at Suhrwardy hospital), dangling from the ceiling fan in her bedroom after Gibraan left for work. Her feet, a perfect pendulum, swung from side to side, as the wind pulled the aachal of her sari through the open Thai Aluminum window. In the bulge of Shobha’s eyeballs and the blackness of her protruding tongue, rumor abandoned its conscience, awakening the city only to hush it.
Dhaka’s population, now dwindled by one, bursts out of shops, houses, tea-stalls and offices, to buy a newspaper.