The last time they saw her, she had her melon-red dupatta lightly draped around like an ominous melody. Her eyes had the shine of newly polished diamonds; as if she had just seen something out of the sky. That wasn’t the only day when she looked so intrigued about everything that crossed her path. Neela was never ordinary; she was like the light unprecedented drizzle on a winter day, or that one moment of luxury for a malnourished child. With her fat metal nose ring that hung like a warrior’s sword, molten brown-sugar complexion and lightly messy hair, she was a sight no living or dead ever missed.
Neela had lost her mother when she was twelve. Her playmates told her that she was adopted and that’s why her mother decided to leave once she became tired of her. Others, neighbors and relatives, never really spoke to her. Whenever she’d appear in the middle of their royal gossips, they’d say, ‘She’s here’. What never occurred to them was that Neela was a very sharp child. Her ears were sharper than a fox’s and even if it wasn’t, she could read people’s faces just by looking at them. So she’d coquettishly smile and run like a child was supposed to and go to her favorite place in the world. But nobody ever checked up on her to see where she really went.
The graveyard astonished her every day with the same degree of jolt. She had her convictions that dead people were never really dead. In fact, death never meant leaving to not return again. It meant a lifetime of relaxation; a time out of this world where people really, happily lived for the first time. They lived like the inexplicable giggle of an infant, she’d explain to herself on doubtful days. So she’d go there and sit beside the Bougainville tree planted near the gravestone of some married lady and find the miser number of sticks of fragrant Dolonchapa lying like a plaintiff braid. In the beginning of her visits, the numbers weren’t so small. But every day, she’d find a few less than the previous day. But even those few bombasted such a kind perfumed, meditative ambiance, that she’d come only to sit there for hours without a single gesture on herself. People came around, walked around her, but she wouldn’t nudge. The caretaker often said, ‘Apa, it’s not a safe place. You shouldn’t come here like this.’ She’d smile with a benevolent curve on her lips and hand him the daily packet of biscuit she brought for him. He would stand there for a while and walk back to the work awaiting him to not be seen for the rest of her stay.
But he was her only silent guardian and somehow she knew that. She noticed how in the duration of that physical absence, he’d constantly, invisibly keep an eye on her.
The first time Neela met Maisha, her ‘long-lost’ childhood friend was under the years-old tree in the famous Hakim Chottor, a famous tea-stall in Dhaka University where Neela went almost every alternate day for a munch of her favorite vegetable pakora with a sip of her favorite chai. Maisha, wearing a Prussian blue long floral dress, a scarf that Neela would have never chosen even with her eyes closed, a colorful bindi and a handful of fancy-looking mirror bangles, came up to a sitting Neela and asked her with a confident tone, as though they had known each other for years, “Are you Neela, Mala aunty’s daughter?”
Neela looked up with a hesitant smile, ‘Yes.’
“You don’t remember me at all?”
“No, I have always had a terrible memory.” Said Neela.
“We were best friends since childhood. Mala aunty used to call me every day to come and play with you. You don’t remember marrying off the dolls and cooking in your play kitchen?”
Neela’s long lost friend kept belaboring until Neela interrupted because words flew over her head by then. She started feeling restless, confined and claustrophobic in that open air full of amnesia. She took herself on an unstoppable walk until she reached the place of her dreams. The place she had abandoned long ago. But she had promised Babul, the only person she loved after her mother that she’d go there that day. Although, she didn’t remember it until Maisha, the stranger she was glad to have met by then, reminded her of immediately leaving the place she was sitting in for hours to save herself from the lengthy arias of courtesies.
The brownish stained walls of the compound had decade long history written on it. With the white medical clothes hung down from the green nylon string stretching till eternity, it gave her the most warm welcome like it gave her every other evening when she used to come here before years. When she met Babul for the first time, he was sitting on the brief stairway. He was the friend Neela was forbidden to make. With the shabby white sleeveless t-shirt he wore, the utterly mud-bridled feet, all the world’s dirt sedimented under his beautiful nails, he was quite a sorry figure to look at, at least for the rest of the world. But Neela saw something in his eyes. Something she had felt inside her but never saw in anyone else, something inexplicable and beastly. When Neela used to go to that compound with her father during his work, she’d always stroll and end up right near the Dhobi Ghaat where Babul would either sit or play with a rickshaw tire and a stick to keep it moving. She’d go and stand, looking at the perpetual rolling of the tire throughout a chalked length Babul had blueprinted in his head. The first day, he was intimidated by the sophisticated aura of her gestures. She had calculated movements like that of a queen wearing an off-white frock with little ruffles hanging like her tranquil eyes, amazed and unmoved. But Babul was a child with an artless spontaneity. He walked up and offered her another stick. Lightly, like the soft caresses of a spring breeze, she extended her hand and took the stick with unnerved determination that she also had when she decided, in her heart, that’d he’d be the only friend in her life. Slowly as their friendship deepened like timeless wine, Babul had dared to confess to her about the work his father did; something he had always kept in hidden treasure.
Neela had eyes full of zeal, ‘Show me’, she said.
From then on, they’d stand outside the cold room like greed-filled vultures. Tiptoed, they watched for hours, their feet becoming cold with patience. They would do this every day until Babul finally started doing what his father did as his job and Neela went a way that had no purpose. It was very turbulent for the two, hitting an age that had its own jolts and separating from an ethereal bond they made. But both survived with moss growing in their hearts like incurable cancer cells.
That day when Neela met him again after a forever period of ten or so years, it was in the graveyard where she went almost every other day from her childhood. He had come there for a reason that he never really got a chance to explain to her, even later on.
That time, she walked up to a stoned man who she later discovered to be him, ‘Do you believe that people die and never return?’
‘No, they become alive.’
‘I think so too, they were physical illusions before.’
With a sudden jolt, he stood up almost on one foot and asked, ‘Neela?’
With his round, villainous red drunken eyes, dishevelled hair messed up into a wool ball, disproportionately chubby cheeks distinct with its pores lying scattered like little waterless canals, Babul had a very unpleasant look about him even that day when she met him again after years. There was no terror in his facial line. An electrifying cold ran through Neela’s bones.
‘Have you gone to see mother?’ Neela asked.
‘She doesn’t want to talk to me.’
‘Did she ask for me?’ asked Neela.
‘She cries when the steel touches her.’
‘I’ll come tomorrow.’ Says Neela.
And that tomorrow wouldn’t have ever come for Neela, if not for Maisha who reminded her of the emergence to leave that place right away, to run as far as she could from the chaos.
Reaching the decades-old compound after a tireless, hurried walk, she found Babul walking swiftly all over the compound, searching for an invisible ghost. He saw her from far away but had no twitch on his face. He just kept searching. She walked up in slow paces and tried to look into the window of her childhood, the one through where Babul and she would look to see Babul’s father and few other men working, drunken to their cores.
‘The authority permanently closed the windows.’ Babul spoke lightly.
‘Take me to her.’ She said in a trembling tone.
They walked past an austere room with no blinds, no furniture; just the white walls stretching into eternity. She was walking on the paths of heaven, she thought to herself. But this heaven wasn’t as people had described to her, ‘There will be flowers, flowers of all colors, shapes and sizes. Your eyes will be tired with the limitless beauty. Whatever you want, you can get just by asking.’
But her heaven was so different. It was just white. As if the entire army of clouds has gathered in reminiscence.
Babul opened the door. There were twenty watts dim lights hanging down like the whiskers of a banyan tree. She walked up slowly to the bed on the corner right of the window. Her heart started fluttering wildly, as if it would start growing wings and spring out of her binding rib cage. A string of well chorded cold breeze flew into her bones, clattering them.
The woman had become more beautiful. Her skin, translucent and glowing as ever, was a spectacle to admire. With her hands elegantly placed on her sides and the cloth draping her like the flawless stretch of a sky, she looked like a queen even while she was lying there motionless as ever.
‘You know what hurt me more, Maa?’ she spoke with a fiery tone, as if she’d break down into tears right away.
‘I’ve gotten used to hearing that you killed yourself, because only Babul and I knew that you lived here to escape the chaos. And I was fine too because now you had all the time for me.’ She kept speaking while Babul looked out the windows like a vulture. ‘But then, why wouldn’t they put you in the graveyard. It’s so suffocating here. Now I understand. You just like hurting me, don’t you? Don’t you see me sit beside the woman under the Bougainvilles? It is because she talks to me there. She fucking talks. In the beginning, you talked to me after coming here. For the first time in a very long time, you asked me about the friends I had made, the food I had or the dress I wore. But now, you’re like that old self. You’re dead when finally alive. So I stopped coming. I wouldn’t have come today either if I hadn’t met Babul that day.’ She went on like a train until Babul told her that they had to leave today.
‘But she doesn’t ever get to know. I need to tell her things. I haven’t talked to her. She needs to know.’ tears rolled down her flustered cheeks igniting it so much that it looked like her face would explode. Babul held her hand now and swiftly took her out of the room.
Neela’s eyes puffed up with all the anguish dormant in her. She took her hand out of his and started walking towards the dead end. She needed to talk to someone who was alive.
Before Babul could meet her after locking the room that only he knew of, he found no traces of her. He walked to the Dhobi Ghaat to see if Neela was like that exuberant butterfly she used to be when they used to be friends. She used to cramp up behind the white clothes and let the coy sun rays soothe her caramelized cheeks.
Neela had gone to the graveyard. For the first time, she desperately started searching for the man who’d always come to tell her that it wasn’t a place for the women. She walked hurriedly through every nook and corner of the deserted land of the living. Finally, after an hour of await, her eyes almost burst into sparks when she saw a man around.
‘Have you seen the Chacha who lives here?’
‘No, last week he passed away.’
Neela stood there like a corpse, her facial lines shrinking into a lifeless river. She almost felt her eyes fading into a monstrous white with the tremor inside her body.
‘I just needed to talk.’ She said to herself, drunken.
For the next few days, Neela locked herself in the enclosure of her damp room that she intricately blueprinted like a graveyard. It helped her every single day when she’d run off from one graveyard to another and finally not be able to talk to anyone. She remembered Babul a lot. His drunken eyes, his calm hands and the silence made her love him so madly. But he never got to know that, she thought to herself.
Neela’s father had come to her house one day when he saw her daughter scattering her soul in thin air. He knocked on her door, ‘Neela, how long will you do this? Please stop all of it. I’m old now, you have responsibilities towards me, Don’t forget it, don’t be like this.’
There was not a sign of swish from the other end.
‘Neela, you need to grow up now. You’re not young anymore. And you have to know this very well that you cannot be like your mother.’
He kept on going, now sitting on a chair that the little girl, who worked at Neela’s house, gave him courteously, ‘Listen Maa, now you need to become strong. I’ve got a letter for you and I had to read it because I knew something is not right in your life. I am your father and I have the right to do this.’
Still, there was no sound from the other side of the enclosed graveyard.
He started reading the letter aloud, ‘My dearest Neela, I would never want to be the chaos in your life and you know that. You hate noise and I know that so well. Today, I’ll tell you that I love you, I’ve loved you my entire life. I had no courage to tell you that as you wouldn’t have believed me. To you, I’m dead.
I know that I couldn’t give you a single thing my entire life, not because I didn’t want to but because I never had anything to give to you. So today I gift you something you’d love me for, something for which you would never leave me again. Believe me, the nights are horrifying.
So for you, my love, I’ll become alive for the first time, in a very long time. Yours, Babul.’
A humongous silhouette had taken the shape of the entire house and there was still no sound from the other side of the room.
Rehnuma Siddique is a writer, painter and traveller. With tea being an intense love, she has also found passion in travelling. Travelling to her is life- it is what has taught her to live, love and do what she does. You can reach out to her and share your thoughts at [email protected]