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Every morning, from the moment she opens her eyes till the final slip into exhausted sleep, Mahmuda keeps calculating the expenses.
This month the rent would be 17,000 Taka. But starting next month it would be 25,000. Their incomes would remain the same: she would make 10,000 from tutoring, and Iqbal would bring home 35,000 of his 37,000 Taka salary. He would pay his phone bill, which would hopefully remain just under 1,000, and keep the rest for transport and the odd cigarette or cup of tea. Kajal’s salary would have to stay the same: 4,000 was not much to pay a maid these days, but Mahmuda feels she is lenient enough to make up for it. After all, Kajal had her own mobile phone, which Mahmuda gives her 100 every month for. And Kajal is allowed to chatter late at night or in the middle of her household chores. Hardly any other family would have allowed her that.
Mahmuda wakes just before her alarm went off, as she usually did. By now, her body clock knows to wake a few minutes before, and turn off the alarm before it can disturb Iqbal. She slips out of bed, and goes to knock on Kajal’s door before going to the bathroom. She knows Kajal won’t wake up until the second knock, after Mahmuda finishes with her Fajr prayers, but continues with the routine.
The routine is safe: the routine has been carefully developed and tweaked over the past four years. Only when it is finally time for children, could it possibly change. But they barely have the money for children right now. It would have to be done at some point, though; what else was there?
Iqbal’s mother will soon be up to read her Koran, sitting in bed, with the dim morning light only. She won’t want to turn on the light, worrying about the electricity bill, even though they had it changed to an energy-saver bulb. Mahmuda knows at some point there will be a cost for her mother-in-law’s eye damage, but for now, she too would rather keep the electricity consumption down. Last month the bill was 2,313. Too much.
Mahmuda wonders, ever so briefly, about her own mother. Was this what she wanted Mahmuda’s life to be? Or perhaps these difficulties would bring more lecturing, more dismissals of Mahmuda’s competency.
Her mother’s death had been remarkably undramatic, for a woman who liked to insinuate and drop hints at every opportunity. Mahmuda had expected more fanfare, more fake pleas to the Almighty. She hadn’t found her mother’s faith very convincing. There wasn’t much charity or kindness in what she said or did, despite the number of times she went through her prayer beads. Those beads are now in an oblong box in the wardrobe; Mahmuda wishes she had the courage to throw them away. But if they are found in the garbage, she will be to blame for callousness or foolishness, or both; and besides, it isn’t clear to her if it is sinful or not. It might not be, but then pieces of tattered paper folded up and sealed with candle wax in small brass lockets are supposed to be holy, and helpful for aches and pains, and protection from evil.
Mahmuda does not often reflect on her parents or her childhood. There are stretches that had nothing too remarkable to remember, and then there are episodes that cannot be resolved or addressed, just dismissed to allow everyone to move forward. No regret, shame, resentment. A carefully ironed and starched emotional balance.
She realises she had been standing in the bathroom without moving for a few minutes. She reaches for the plastic mug on the edge of the basin, and scoops some water from the wrecked old bucket beneath. Carrying the mug, she steps into the narrow veranda where they hang out their washing once Kajal is done beating the dirt out. Mahmuda herself washes a few of the lighter, more fragile things, as well as her own undergarments. That seems, to her, like the correct way of doing things.
She has small plants on the edge of the veranda, some fastened to the grill. She feels the plants served many purposes: it makes the grill seem less stifling, less imprisoning; it blocks the view just a little bit, and maybe filters out some of the dust coming in from the streets. She thinks she can probably cultivate a few more useful things; she mostly has cacti, one sparse pot of mint, and some chilli plants. Perhaps tomatoes would be worth trying.
She barely looks out towards the street.
Some things are not the same things. What is crystal to you? Is it beautiful and rare, shining and pure? To Mahmuda, it is a cheap coloured thing, the material of ugly vases given at her wedding. She left many of them in their boxes in the hope of repackaging them for other people. So far, she has only been able to get rid of two.
In the half glance, or quarter glance perhaps, she sees two people walking up the narrow alley, looking up at houses. The numbers are all written in different places, shapes, colours.
There is a woman in full hijab, and she is bigger than her companion. Her friend is frail. The collarbone and shoulder make a menacing, sharp triangle.
It was all she had time to look at, really.
Inside her room, Mahmuda spreads out her threadbare prayer mat. She isn’t about to use the new one her mother-in-law brought back from her umrah trip last year. A trip they didn’t really have the money for, but after Mahmuda’s mother died, her mother-in-law made many insinuations that she could follow any moment, and how terrible would it be, to have not gone and fulfilled her responsibilities as a faithful Muslim. Perhaps this expense would distance the pressure to procreate for a little while.
Mahmuda is kneeling the second time, when, suddenly: it all falls into place.
The triangle is the same triangle belonging to her frame, which she sees sometimes in the small rectangle of the bathroom mirror after showering. She hardly looks at herself except to check that she has dried off properly, so the curves and lines of her own body aren’t in the forefront of her thoughts. They don’t help the long columns of addition and subtraction running through her head at every moment.
It is the same triangle, of the collarbone and neckline. The conviction suddenly knits itself together in her mind, like loose puzzle pieces magically brought together. She gets up. Better to act when the whole neighbourhood is not yet awake.
Mahmuda doesn’t knock on Kajal’s door as she walks past and carefully unbolts the door. She slips on rubber flip flops from the row of shoes and sandals next to the doormat and makes her way down the stairs quietly. Not all that differently from how she normally goes. Everything Mahmuda does comes with the need to efface herself from notice.
The metal collapsible kechi gate at the entrance of the building is already unlocked, which is a relief. She didn’t want to wake the old guard sleeping in the tiny cot under the stairs. The gate has been well-oiled lately and its scissored pieces don’t make any of the grinding noises they used to last year.
Outside, they are both standing against the wall of the building.
Shamim says, surprised, ‘You’re awake? Did you know we were here?’
Shamim is wearing a checked shirt and jeans, but this neutral set of clothes does not make Mahmuda feel relief. She is more alarmed at the familiarity of Shamim’s voice, and her own inability to arrange her reaction. It is six years now since this voice reached her ears. Suddenly a dormant version of herself is stirring, shifting aside the numbers constantly whirring in her mind.
There are questions swimming behind her eyes and just under the apple of her throat, but she only says, ‘I wake up early. I saw you walking down the road as I was watering my plants.’
Shamim smiles. ‘I’m glad you have plants here. It must be difficult to be without open space after where we grew up.’ A pause. ‘I only heard about Amma’s death a week ago. When was it?’
Mahmuda wants to feel the relief of tears, but her eyes stay perfectly dry. ‘Last year. November 8.’
‘It can’t be.’ Even after everything Shamim had been through, here, there was more grief and pain about their mother’s death than Mahmuda ever felt. ‘How?’
The bulky woman in hijab takes a step forward, to stand next to Shamim. Mahmuda doesn’t really want to know who this is. She also doesn’t know what to do: answer Shamim’s questions, invite them inside? Too many lies have been told to her husband and in-laws.
She could try to continue the fiction, but she suspects that everything would leak out. The story of Shamim was so badly patched over. A vague explanation of studies abroad, and a low-paying job, with the hope of residency, oh, the immigration rules are so strict now, one can’t possibly get away just to attend a sister’s wedding. They were not rich; it was good to be prudent. Her parents must have hoped that over time Shamim’s existence would fade away, as they drifted further from the few who had known Shamim and Mahmuda as children. The people who were working in their parents’ home when Shamim finally ran away had moved on to other places. One old gardener received a fair amount of money to move back to his village and build a brick house for his family. It was likely because he had seen Shamim sneak in and out much more than the rest of the household did.
All of this would unravel if she brought Shamim in and introduced the reality of her only sibling to her husband and mother-in-law. Iqbal was not stupid; her mother-in-law was fond of spinning her own conclusions for every small observation she made for their neighbours and every day visitors. No; Mahmuda doesn’t know how to extract herself or how to return to her routine, but she cannot take Shamim up with her. And she doesn’t know what Shamim wants their story to be either.
Mahmuda says, in as mild a tone as possible. ‘She had a stroke. We took her to the hospital, and she died later that night. We buried her in Azimpur.’
Shamim absorbs this with the same meekness that they both absorbed the anger, the attacks that their mother doled out once she became aware of Shamim’s differences. Somehow, in her eyes, both of them were to blame: Shamim for being the wrong kind, and Mahmuda for being the right kind, but with bodies too similar to allow her mother to pretend that they weren’t both her children. That Shamim was some kind of deformed alien they had been burdened with, and not a child with the same parents as Mahmuda.
Mahmuda realises that Shamim’s hair, tied back neatly, is now longer than her own. It is this sight of beautifully kept, carefully combed hair that brings out new emotions. Finally, Shamim had the long hair they had both wanted as children, but which only Mahmuda was allowed to have. She remembers that when they were teenagers, Shamim loved to braid her hair for her. She was fortunate not to be the child who was dragged to the barbers, crying, begging for her hair to be kept a little longer. Mahmuda reaches out hesitantly, touches Shamim’s head lightly. She sees now that while she has shrunken into herself in six years, Shamim has bloomed. And yet still, standing together in the watery first light of the day, their shadows offered an almost perfect symmetry.
Some things are not the same things.