Parul calculated that it had been around six months since the man had disappeared. Some said he had drowned at sea, some that he had gone to Dhaka for work. Parul didn't care where the hell he went, but why did he leave without telling her? Would she have stopped him if he had told her? Would she have started crying? No, she would have done neither. She would have allowed whoever wanted to leave, leave. If there was any pain in her heart, it would have been her own. Why did the man run away then? He had fled because he couldn't understand Parul, was that it? Or did he think that if he did not escape, it would have been too hard to leave her?
Her head spun whenever she thought these things. She could never stand indifference from anyone, certainly not from someone so close—her socially "I do"-ed husband. Whose name was Abbas Ali, village Thanar Hat, district Noakhali. Not much income, he was a day laborer, spending their days any old way with whatever they could scrounge together. When she entered his household, poverty was what Parul saw around her mostly, so she put her energy to earning, working house to house, getting rice, vegetables, whatever she managed to get served for meals. She had put up with the poverty. She had no complaints against Abbas Ali. In fact, she had rather liked the strong young man. She would fall asleep late at night talking of her sorrows and her joys. Why did the man not like this household? Parul's anger was focused on this question, but it remained unanswered. When people questioned her, she never felt embarrassed; instead her blood would begin to boil.
Her head would pound when she returned home after work and sat in the veranda at midday—the raucous songs of the boatmen from the shores of Hatiya floated in her skull. They were going to Narayanganj with the salt-earth they had collected. Salt would be manufactured at Bhuiyan's factory in Narayanganj.
Some day the hands of people somewhere would be eaten away from washing the salt earth, bringing out the crystal white salt. They would not know that Parul was a girl of the salt lands whose empty skull spoke, asked questions, and answered them. A hard question rang through her empty skull: When does a person's need for another person end? Why did the man leave? Why should he leave? These whys encircled her empty skull like a rope—a tough rope, bringing out welts in white or black skin. At some point, the welts would crack, blood spurting from those wounds. When she felt like scratching at something, she would grab the bamboo pole and shake it. The roof of the rickety house would shudder. Parul would stare at the shuddering roof. The thatch had shifted in places, creating gaps—the bamboo leaves were about to fall off, something needed to be done before the rainy season. The roof needed to be mended. This need had a meaning, it was not necessary to search for a meaning for this need. The man must have left in search of some other need—what did that mean? Then her empty skull questioned: When does a husband stop needing his wife?
Her belly replies: When she cannot give him food.
The question arises again: When does a husband stop needing his wife?
Her loins answer: When she cannot provide her flesh.
Her whole body shrieks, I could do everything. Why did he run away?
Then it felt as if she has no hunger, thirst, or sexual desire. The shores of Hatiya lay all around her. The tidewater brought in the salt-earth. Her empty skull said, never had the keening for food reverberated around the horizons of her household. The urges to love never fell flat on the rainbow-hued fields. Then why did he leave? Why does her skull languish empty among the dirt, the mud, the weeds, the trash? When her heart burns out, her eyes catch fire. Does living life mean counting the hours for the one person? The person who had a socially accepted role in her life? The person with whom if she went to bed, whose child she could carry in her belly without society saying anything? Parul quivered. Her body tautened. She kept thinking, her skull emptying with the thought that for no reason at all the man was indifferent to her female self. This insult burned her with an intense heat. She accepted a tremor within her tense body and cursed the void in a strong voice.
She protested with her voice and gestures. She didn't want this life. She wanted laughter, pleasure, desperation, a life that could kick society in the ass. She pulled out the gamccha tucked into the fence and ran to the pond, jumping in. Romping against the water, frolicking within the water, she tried to wash away the insult. But the feeling of humiliation would not go away.
She started work on the road two days after that. The road needed to be filled up. The Upazila Parishad was having it done—they would get wheat for the work. Others shoveled the earth into a basket, she carried it on her head to deposit it on the road. The intense sun was cooking her flesh and her bones. She tired and stopped awhile to rest. Tara's mother came near and proffered her the bidi held in her hand: Go on, have a drag.
But I don't smoke.
Don't smoke, my ass, try it, girl. It'll give you strength.
Parul hesitated before accepting the bidi. She dragged on it and coughed. After coughing several times she began to like it. That day after work, as she returned from the Upazila office with her wheat, she bought a pack of bidis from Qashem's store. After returning home, taking her bath, she fried up some wheat in a clay wok. That day she crunched on fried wheat till late at night, dragging endlessly on bidis and humming different songs. After a long time everything seemed to be mighty fine.
A few days later Alam Chacha of the village gave her the news in front of the Upazila Parishad office. Said: "Your husband's cutting paddy at Monpura Char. He's married too."
At first her eyes widened. Then she started giggling and said, "Quite right too."
But her insides burned at this humiliation of her womanhood. Burning, burning, vivid like the flicker of a bidi in the darkness.
Irritated, Alam Chacha said, "Whatcha laughing for then, huh? What's so funny?"
Still she tried to say with a bright smile, "Marriage is good news. Why shouldn't I laugh?"
When Alam Chacha left with a "Stupid girl," she realized that there was pain within that laughter—sorrow does not always mean tears. Her empty skull began to speak—she wanted to forget her sorrow. When her empty skull began to speak she became certain of what she must do. She felt no indecision in her mind. She realized that what is most difficult is to ascertain a target. Inability to make decisions was the biggest problem in living life. Once this difficult problem was resolved, then time flowed fluidly, and did not become a burden to the mind.
Two months later she became pregnant. When it became clear to her another three months later, she felt joy within. I'm going to be a mother? She twirled inside her house like a madwoman. It took some time for her to settle down. Once settled down, her insides kept flooding in a deluge of joy. Whether it was good or bad to be a mother without a husband was not a thought that entered her head. She's a mother, this feeling turned her into a wealthy woman. It became the single most important thing to her to hold on to this feeling.
One day, standing in her yard, Tara's mother threw a look at her and said, "Hey Paruilla, have you got something in your oven then?"
She nodded with a shy smile.
"What! You don't have a husband."
"Do you really need a husband to get a bun in your oven?"
She looked at her in amusement. As if Tara's mother had just said something enormously funny. It didn't seem to her that such a response was ready in her mouth. The answer came out quite spontaneously. She wagged her finger at Tara's mother and repeated her remark.
Tara's mother snapped at her, "You shameless girl . . ."
"Don't curse me, you'll regret it."
"Won't the baby need a dad, then?"
"What would it need a dad for? I'm its dad, I'm its mom."
Tara's mother grumbled, "The girl's gone mad."
Word of Parul's strange behavior spread throughout the village. Women crowded her house asking curious questions. Sometimes Parul answered them, sometimes she didn't. She would look away or go down to the pond. She would swim in the pond as long as she felt like it. It wasn't as if all the men in the village came to her; it wasn't as if she liked all the men She encouraged whomever she liked in order to satisfy the cravings of her flesh. Her joy was in whomever's company she enjoyed; the paternity of her child was not important to her. She didn't even want to give them the rights of fatherhood. She would say directly, "I will bring up the child. I'll feed him, I'll clothe him, what would I do with a dad? There's Aiton, her husband's run off leaving her with two kids. What's the difference? Don't kids who don't have dads turn out all right?"
Some nodded at Parul's unarguable logic, some argued back. She would grow tired of arguing and would let it go. But she never suffered defeat. Tired of arguing, she would stop. Girls who had been abandoned by their husbands with two or three children would praise her in secret. They would tell her, "You've done the right thing, Parul. Now those pigs can't talk back at us."
When she would hear this, that "Why" question of Parul's would remain unmoving in her empty skull. A balm of sympathy was smoothed over the burns of humiliation. A strength worked within her telling her that she would never lose.
She would sit in her veranda, sewing linen for her baby from used clothing. Some of the girls came in secret to give her old saris. Sometimes someone would give her food. She didn't really need these, but the small gifts made her glad. Now she was immersed in the dreams of motherhood, her body felt no sexual urges. She was a woman. Now she was on her knees in front of nature. Vast nature had fulfilled her self, her identity with pride and glory—she would reap the rewards.
Sometimes there would be scrabbling sounds at the fence in the darkness. Someone would call to her in a whisper, Paru, oh Paruilla . . . She didn't answer. Didn't get up. She needed no one now. She would of course open her door when she would need someone.
One day, mid afternoon. She had just finished bathing and was standing in the middle of her yard. The man of the first day arrived. With hurried footsteps, fearful that someone would see him here. The man placed one hand on his chest and asked quickly, "Am I the father of your son?"
She beat her hair with her gamccha as she replied impassively, "No."
"Then who is the man?"
"Why do you want to know? What do you need to know that for?"
There was pleading in the man's voice. "Come on Parul, tell."
"Tell you what? I told you, it's not you."
She spread the gamccha on the clothesline and went into the house. In the evening came another man. "Parul, you have to tell me who the father of your son is. Isn't it me?"
"No." Parul's voice is somber. "What do you want to know that for? What's it to you?"
"Such arrogance will do you no good, Parul."
Parul breaks down in helpless laughter. The Azaan floats on the evening air. The man waits no longer. Late at night comes another one. Silently. Whispers, "Parul."
"Why're you here? To be the father of my child? You're not my baby's dad. Now go."
Finally she is annoyed. The men just want the authority of fatherhood. Nothing else. They wouldn't take care of the child, wouldn't take the child in, wouldn't even acknowledge it in public. All any of them wanted to do was feel pleased at the thought that it was his child in Parul's womb. Oh men! Then Parul's empty skull speaks, I don't sell my flesh. I don't ask for money from anyone, this isn't my trade. I enjoy for my own pleasure—whoever I want, whenever I want.
Parul tidies her bed and goes to sleep. Even before her head touches the pillow she hears footsteps outside. She sits up again. Who were they that they wanted rights over the child? Who were they? They were only one kind of people. That was their nature but no one will know whose child I am mother to—only I, only I am God.
Then the call comes in a loud voice from the other side of the door, "Paru, Paruilla . . ."
She chortles loudly and says, "You're not my baby's father."
The darkness shatters with the sound of that laughter.
© Selina Hossain. Published by arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2005 by Shabnam Nadiya. All rights reserved.