A short story I entered into a competition; though I did not win, it was an honour to have been judged by such a prestigious group of renowned writers. Now, I share it with you. I was inspired by what domestic violence groups, like 'NOUR DV,' are doing. NOTE: This is a work of fiction.
Love is a fiend, a fire, a heaven, a hell,
Where pleasure, pain and sad repentance dwell.
*Richard Barnfield, 1574-1627*
The sun, ablaze, feels like it’s disintegrating through the roof only to target me. My parents would rather that I stir cloves, cumin seeds, and cinnamon sticks into a pot of boiling tea, than enjoy a relaxing dip in the lake.
While I cannot grasp how it is that aromatic spices taste like the soil beneath my own cinnamon-complexioned feet, my mother commands, “Rumi Begum, why can’t you seem to keep your shawl on your head?” Mother is a short and stubby woman, but she lives up to matriarchal standards.
“It keeps slipping off my head… and what if it catches on fire?” I refute, pointing to the gas beneath the teapot. Why can’t we just buy a kettle and have tea like the British do, simple and quick? “My arms are getting tired,” I moan.
“Stop complaining! You’re nearly done. The guests have arrived.”
With that, Mother struts off to keep the guests company. The guests, I think to myself, the guests…that have come all the way from England, just to see me, apparently. Who knows what the truth is; Mother’s known to embellish her stories.
Regardless, she powders my face, slaps some crimson gloss onto my lips and blushes my cheeks to match my crimson salwar. To top it all off, she outlines my eyes with liquid eyeliner and fake lashes. I hate makeup! Why mask my face as if I’m ashamed of how I look? I’m sure men prefer confident women.
“I’m perfectly fine with how I look, Ma,” I say. “Any man who sees a woman with dark skin and long, silky hair like mine will drop to his knees and present me with, what’s that famous ring…Tiffany! A Tiffany diamond ring.”
“Tut!” she hisses before tucking my plaited hair beneath a shawl.
Tray in-hand, I try to obediently follow instructions. Lowering my gaze, I attempt to daintily tiptoealong the corridor, but the cacophony of my bangles and anklets won’t let me.
Kneeling down, eyes nearly-shut, I place the tray gently onto the table and serve firstly, Mr. Potential-Husband-to-be, followed by his parents. Finally, my parents.
What’s wrong with me? I ask myself. How is it that I’m considering to marry a complete stranger? I have no idea what his name is, what he does, what’s his favourite colour or his favourite movie.
In fact, I’m far from comfortable about the entire situation, but it’s my fault for not asking my parents anything about him beforehand.
This is just the beginning, I convince myself, taming my panic attack. It’s only the first meeting. I don’t have to decide right away…. Mother promised. Father promised.
Next thing I know, the teacup slams back down on top of the tray. Startled, I blink, but I refuse to look up at him. What if he’s hideous? I imagine his character via his shiny black shoes and grey trousers. Smart? I hope.
I look back at the empty teacup on top of the tray and I realize what he’s done. Mr. Potential-Husband-to-be has sipped my tea, in its entirety, despite the fact that I mixed into it, salt, instead of sugar. Salt, my desperate
attempt to make him hate my tea so much that he’d hate me.
I decide that he deserves a glance. He has a sweet smile.
“The tea was lovely. May I have another cup?” he asks.
I giggle. Feeling Mother’s glare on me, I quickly cover my mouth and scurry into the kitchen. I’m making another cup of tea for Mr. Husband-to-be, mixing in sugar this time.
As nature intended, I familiarize myself with every door, corridor, and staircase in our British home. I’m accustomed to darkness so in the middle of the night, if I need a glass of water or to use the toilet, neither do I open my eyes nor turn on the lights. I’m programmed to know my home.
Even marriage is a routine. During the week, I serve my husband, Jagirdar, tea and breakfast. When he comes home in the evening, the table is set for dinner. On weekends, he prefers to be home unless out with friends. I, Rumi Jagirdar, am a homemaker because my Bangladeshi high school education does not measure up to British standards of office work or, so, my husband claims. I trust him. I trust that everything my husband does and says is right. If I were on one end of the blind justice scale and he, on the other, he would always be more right than I.
The smoke detector alarms. I dash down the stairs and turn the gas off in the kitchen. The house is pungent with the smell of burnt rice. I open all the windows and doors of the house. I, then, put on another fresh pot of rice. While that pot boils, I attempt to salvage some immaculately white rice from inside the burnt pot. But, it’s all doomed. The rice at the top is off-white, the rice at the middle is brown and the rice at the very bottom is a black bed that is impossible to scrape out. I have to throw the pot away as it’s damaged.
It’s nearly 7:00 p.m. He’s going to home any minute, expecting dinner to be spread across the table. While I wait for the new pot of rice to boil to completion, I think about how our rice cooker had been dead for a week now. He promised to give me some cash to purchase a new one, but he forgot. I hope he remembers tonight.
I hear the sound of keys outside. He’s early! Think of an excuse, any excuse that can save me from the embarrassment, I tell myself. The rice burnt because I fainted. I hate lying to him.
Spraying away with the lavender-scented canister, I run to the door. I welcome him in.
Sniffing the air, he asks, “Is something burning?”
“You left it on the stove and forgot all about it again, didn’t you?”
“No, I fa….” I hate lying to him. “I’m sorry, but there’s a fresh pot, almost ready.”
“I’m starving,” he robotically replies as he places his coat on the rack and takes off his shoes.
“By the time you freshen up, the table will be set. I promise.” I smile, my mouth quivering.
He swiftly lashes his belt out from his trousers. I squint my eyes as I’m a mere two feet in front of him and his belt could whip against the wall and against my arm. It misses. I step away from him, but he steps forward and lashes the belt out against the wall again, nearly hitting me.
He looks like a ravenous lion on the hunt for his prey.
“I’m hungry,” he repeats. “And with all these windows and doors open, I’m freezing cold.”
The heels of my bare feet hit against the staircase, causing me to fall back. The purple canister rolls out of my hands. As if animal instinct, he’s suddenly mesmerized by it.
Then, with fiery eyes, as red as the sun was on the first day I met him,
Jagirdar rhetorically asks, “You think that sweet lavender scent mixed with the burnt rice odour is…soothing to the nose?”
I gulp down tears. Don’t cry; remember what happened the last time you cried? Don’t cry, I secretly whisper to the generator of all emotions, my heart. Then, I remember reading a biology library book on the heart as an involuntary organ, which means that it’s out of my control.
I start sobbing.
As the tears cascade down my cheeks, I shut my eyes tightly, believing that if I don’t see the belt, I won’t feel the sting of it.
My forgetfulness causes the house to nearly burn down.
Somehow, I feel that, had the house gone ablaze and I became its victim, the amount of pain endured would have been the same as I endure every single day…from him.
It is now 7:10 p.m. and it is only be beginning.
Mother throws away her favourite perfume.
I ask her, “If you don’t want it, then give it to me.”
“Then, I’d have to smell it,” she replies. “Perfume is just one of the many scents of life that trigger our memory. The most beautiful scent can have the foulest memory attached to it. I cannot count the number of times I’ve worn that perfume,” she points to the ornate bottle, buried beneath a pile of trash, “I’ve either lost money or had a terrible squabble with a neighbour. Every time I smell it, I’m reminded of that.”
In my British home, I inhale the aroma of spices, brewing within the teapot and bringing to my senses the memory of the day Jagirdar first made me laugh. I inhale the scent, thinking back to the first few days of our marriage, when he’d leave for work and I, feeling alone, made more tea.
Within an instant, those feelings are lost in the haze of the rising steam. My face drops and I force myself away from the stove. I wonder why the aroma is suddenly unbearable to my senses.
As I prepare the tea cup, I analyze why I’m feeling miserable. Could it be that the smell of the tea reminds me of the day I decided to get married and leave my parents and my home in Bangladesh, behind?
Pouring the tea into the cup, accompanied by a side of meat samosas and buttered crumpets, I present them, as evening snacks, to my husband. His eyes seem hinged to the monitor of his laptop.
“Have your tea while it’s hot,” I muster up in my sweetest tone.
As if spasmodically, he accepts the tea only for a second before
pitching it against my chest.
“I don’t want your tea!”
As the hot tea scolds my chest, I wonder why he’s acting strange as I didn’t smell any alcohol on his breath today. Instinctively, I want to run to the bathroom and pour a cold shower down my chest. But, I can’t.
He forces his eyes away from the laptop, slams it shut and springs up from his chair. By firmly locking his fingers around my right wrist, he forbids me from leaving the bedroom until he finishes his tirade.
“You’ve been using my laptop when I specifically told you not to.”
“How did you…?”
“I scanned my internet history and saw searches for things I wouldn’t normally search for.”
Trying to ignore the excruciating pain of his claws in my veins, I reply, “I was too tired to walk to the library today, just to use their computer.”
“And why do you need to use a computer?”
“I get bored of watching TV all day.” Furiously shaking my head, I blurt, “I won’t use your laptop again, I promise.”
“You always break your promises.”
I feel faint, but I welcome it. Maybe then, I won’t feel my wrist throbbing or my chest burning.
Releasing his grip, he says, “Clean this mess up.” He refers to the brown spots, like a still sepia-toned image of fireworks, on the wall behind me. He returns to the laptop.
I’m free to clean myself up and return to wipe the wall with a washcloth. My hand tremors, but I clean as quickly as possible. I want to avoid another confrontation.
“I see you’re searching for words like ‘love,’ ‘lovemaking,’ and ‘marriage advice.’” His voice darkens near the end.
The tremors in my hand abruptly stop. I regret not deleting the history. I wonder if it makes a difference whether I explain myself or not…he will always decide that I’m worthy of punishment. I continue scrubbing the wall.
He violently grabs my right wrist again, pulls me toward him and says, “What did you learn today? Answer me.”
“Nothing that I didn’t know already,” I try not to sound like a wise-ass, but I know I fail as soon as he slaps me across my right cheek.
The night before I got married, my mother told me that love is agonizing, but the aches subside after a few days. What she must have meant is that love-making is momentarily painful. She also told me that marriage is compromise, which I confirmed Online, today. So, I tolerate Jagirdar’s tantrums as I have been.
I notice he’s submerging his eyes deeply into mine as if he wants to extract ‘hate’ out of me…hate for him, that is. I hate what he does to me, but I could never hate him. He knows it too and it infuriates him. I ask myself four questions, of which only three, I can answer:
Do I love him? I don’t understand the term ‘love’… yet.
Do I make love to him? I never get the chance; he beats me to it.
Are we in a marriage? We have a contract.
Why can’t I any longer bear the smell of cloves, cumin seeds, and cinnamon brewing in tea? I have no idea.
Two dozen roses.
Behind them is neighbour, Pari, a tall, adolescent girl in Bohemian fashion. She rarely visits and now she brings me flowers? I wonder.
“The delivery man left these at our doorstep by mistake. They’re for you,” she says in her deep and monotonous tone.
Thank God Jagirdar isn’t home to witness this.
Then, Pari reveals, “It’s an apology, from your husband.”
I’m slightly relieved, but feel violated. “You checked the card?”
“I had to. How else would I know who the bouquet was for!”
Just as an echo only reaches the ear after it has been first spoken, I realize what Pari just said. It’s an apology. I frown. He’s turned a symbolism of love into a symbolism of pity. I invite Pari inside. While she helps herself to the kettle, I dump the flowers into a crystal vase full of water. Plop goes the sound. Pitiful plop.
“Pari,” I pronounce in the Bengali accent Parree, before she corrects me.
“Pari, pronounced like the French term for ‘Paris,’ the city of love.”
For some reason, I feel the name does not suit her.
We sit in the drawing room, staring into the tabula rasa of empty roses at the centre of the coffee table.
“He doesn’t deserve you,” she blurts out. “I’ve grown up next-door to Mr. Jagirdar. My family and I know him to be a…rough character.”
I want to say, ‘Rough is an understatement,’ but I refrain, simply
nodding in agreement. After all, my relationship is nobody’s business, but my
“We hear it every night.” By ‘it,’ she must be referring to his tantrums. “Terraced walls,” she smirks, “we can have a conversation right through them, no need for a telephone.”
Upon hearing this revelation, should I be embarrassed? I wonder.
“I like to see photo albums," she says.
I go upstairs and grab the only two I own, one of my wedding and the other of my childhood.
Beginning in chronological order, she scrutinizes the last image in my childhood album, which portrays my scrawny body, posing by a lake, with my braided hair slithering down from my shoulder to my waist. I’m smiling.
“Is this you?” she asks.
“Of course. It’s right before my wedding. It’s only been about a year since.” How could she not recognize me?
She compares the photograph from before...to me, at present. As if her vision is blurry, she squints her eyes at the photograph. She then leads me to the large mirror in the corridor. Handing me the photograph, she practically demands that I compare the image to my 'life-size' reflection.
How could she recognize me when I can no longer recognize myself? With fingers as dry as sand, nails chipped, long brown lines running through them, and my eyes supported by large dark cushions beneath them...I look aged.
“It’s a beautiful day outside,” Pari mindlessly says. “Ride with me.”
Sensing my reluctance, she repeats more convincingly, “Ride with me." Finally, she attempts to sound cheerful and comforting, “It’s okay. I have a
license and no police points. Ride with me."
Appreciating the effort, I follow her to her Ford.
She passes the High Street, my comfort corner, where I do my grocery-shopping. We pass the motorway and stop in front of Café L’Amore. Outside and through the windows, the seating arrangement appears to be right out of a French painting, tinseled legs on the table and chairs, swirled up at the edges. Each table is adorned at the centre by a petite pot of live daisy.
As I take off my seat belt and am about to exit the car, I feel a firm grip on my shoulder. Pari beckons me to stay inside and look out of the car window. Outside of the café, there is a tall slender woman in business attire and black pencil-heeled shoes. She embraces her lover, a tall man with sleek black hair. Once the woman moves aside and locks her hand with the man’s, I see more clearly who her lover is…my husband! Jagirdar has been having an affair and I have a feeling that Pari knew about it.
My heart is a wildfire as like a favourite movie scene that one would replay, I loop the term, ‘I hate Pari’ in my head. I hate Pari. By the tenth attempt to engrave that sentence within myself, I fail. I know…I know I should not hate Pari.
She then hands me a business card. “I help women like you, who suffer from domestic violence.”
Noticing my puzzled expression, she elaborates, “Domestic violence is when someone close to you like a family member or husband is hurting you.”
I still do not understand her ‘business’ because my relationship is not her business.
Then, Pari says something that hits me harder than I have ever been
hit, even by Jagirdar. “Your relationship with Mr. Jagirdar is not a normal
marital relationship; it is not how a normal marriage should be.”
Her emphasis on the term ‘normal’ grips my tongue, mute.
“I can help you, if you let me.”
“I’m not leaving him.”
“That’s something that you can decide for yourself, later. The first step is to admit that he is wrong to hit you.”
Wrong. Not normal. I contemplate on the terms.
Here I am, thinking that marriage is compromise and by compromise, it means that I should accept my husband, flaws and all…right? Wrong.
Marriage involves physical intimacy, but it’s been one year and still, physically unbearable. Mother’s known to exaggerate, but not to lie, especially to me.
I remember seeing my mother and father sharing laughs many times. Yet, the only time I shared a laugh with Jagirdar was probably the day I first made him tea. After that, I do not remember how genuine our laughs became.
It’s all too much. I burst into tears like a continuous fountain. If only…he hated my tea. If only…he hated my salty tea!
“It’s okay,” Pari whispers, rubbing my shoulders. “I understand.”
She understands? She’s unmarried, or is she?
“Are you married?” I sniff, choke, and blubber.
“No,” she replies. “But I know that neither wisdom nor experience has anything to do with age or marital status. We each have our own pace. I want to help you and you shouldn’t feel ashamed to accept it.”
I do not know what to expect. A blunt, young woman showed up at my doorstep today. I boldly followed her, beyond my normal boundaries. She has no idea, but I do, of the fact that I had already accepted her help, almost an hour ago.