Open Doors

Hatiyan Pond

Cousin Arif knew there were guests and on that account the likelihood of tasty food was high.  Stepping through the doorway and without a word by way of greeting he positioned himself on the chair beside the table and said, ‘give rice.’  His predictions proved correct and a rice and fish lunch soon appeared from the back room.  In Bangladeshi villages including in Hatiya, doors are most often open.

I don’t remember Kohinoor but she remembered me.  She was just one amongst the flock of children thereabouts whose childhood memories feature a bit of ‘staring at the foreigner’ as a not irregular past hobby.  She was Monir’s sister she said and I’d eaten lunch at their house.  It was years ago but an occasion I can recall.

Kohinoor’s become a woman with her family of her own and when, bejewelled, cheerful and respectable, she stepped through the door with her husband and Monir I was surprised by her confident manner.  Her husband was a fellow from Munshigonj and from first impressions he had a good outlook on life and she’d done well.  They’d taken the time during Eid vacation, like me, to visit our little patch of Hatiya, and it was usual her husband would do the rounds of the relatives and friends while at his father-in-law’s house.  It was usual they’d come through our door amongst the many, without any formalities.  Tea was served and pithas hurriedly arranged from the neighbour’s in order to fuel our chat and I was honoured to belong to Kohinoor’s memories.  I swapped phone details such that we could meet again in Dhaka.

Yet there was one truly remarkable visit of late, from another tall and dignified Hatiyan woman who’d found the back door and stood in the doorway that leads to the front room looking at me as I sat.  I had no idea who she was until Situ said it.  ‘This is Shapla.’  I didn’t even properly smile at her when I heard it; even that most rudimentary communication seemed unnecessary.  I just looked and she also, and the volume of connection was such that actual words would have been petty and could only have diminished the moment.  She was Shapla.  She was proof that sometimes things get better.  She was living evidence that there are happy endings and of course my heart could not but fill with joy at the sight of her, after many years.

A rice and fish lunch soon appeared from the back room.
I was twenty-four when I’d first seen her; she was about fifteen and although in some respects it should’ve been a happy occasion, on the eve of her wedding day, it wasn’t.  Her face was of small tartan pieces, tiny squares of light and shade until the mosquito net was withdrawn.  She sat with legs curled, rigid and stared hollowly towards the end of the bed in her father’s house.  In her eyes there had dwelt an intense vacancy like someone had sucked the blood from each vessel that should have powered the facial muscles to register our entrance.

It was indeed in silence too, our first meeting, but of a different type.  It was silence that freight-train rumbled, strong enough to deafen us from the chattering voices that had filled the next room of the mud-floor, bamboo thatch house; voices alive with talk of jinns.

I worried I might scare her, on account of the white skin; for although she must know me would she even remember the Australian who lived across the rice field? Situ asked her name but she didn’t answer. He turned her face slightly with his hands so at least the blankness swung in our direction.  ‘She hasn’t eaten for three days,’ her father said quietly, ‘nor taken water. She doesn’t speak or sleep.’ He stood behind us, his face furrowed from planting and protecting, unable to be fully replenished by each season’s modest harvest. His was a gradually depleting face in those days.

He knew he was poor and unworldly; why he’d sought counsel from the wealthier, the older and the more religious. Our help was unasked for but as word of the entranced girl at the neighbour’s house had found us we came.

All the arrangements had been made. No doubt her father had saved for several seasons for the most simple of weddings and a pious family had been selected on the assumption it meant they were upstanding.  Her father had been pleased, his duty almost complete.  She’d have a better life with them.

It was normal she’d be nervous so close to her wedding, but beyond normal was her vacancy.  Shapla’s father should not have sent her to the tube well for water, his wife had scolded and he now only too well imagined, especially not in the evening when the winds blew. Bad things lived in the wind.

‘I’ll wait outside,’ I said to Situ, ‘I might scare her.’

‘Who is he?’ Situ said to Shapla sharply, pointing at me, ‘who is he? Can you say?’  I stopped. We waited. After a few moments, like a falling leaf her lips shuffled slightly; as though from a vast distance she murmured words.

‘What was that?’ Situ said, ‘who is he?’

This time we heard. Three words dripped into the room like kajurer juice into its pot, ‘your Australian friend.’
Even on the riverbank there is community

We retired to the next room. Several ladies waited on the bed there, but when they saw us coming they shielded their faces with their burqas and hurried outside. Through the door their voices called, and Situ translated, ‘what happened? Did she move? Do they know what to do?’

‘She spoke,’ Shapla’s father said. He brought a wooden school chair for me before sitting on the bed. ‘She’s in deep shock,’ I told Situ to say, ‘she’s not ready for marriage. How old is she?’

‘Eighteen,’ her father said.

‘The law says eighteen but she is not,’ I said.  The question was repeated and Shapla’s father hesitated, counted, didn’t really know. The villagers don’t usually celebrate birthdays and it’s all the more complicated to remember them with the three calendars, Gregorian, Islamic and Bengali.

‘Is she at school?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’

‘What can we do?’ I asked Situ.  He shook his head.

Shapla’s father said that one of the local respectable uncles or Miahs had diagnosed she was attacked by a jinn on the evening she went to get water from the well. ‘Tell him she’s too young to marry,’ I said, ‘he should call off the wedding.’ Situ told these things, but her father said he couldn’t, with arrangements made; that he wanted her to get well quickly as the groom’s family had already heard she was possessed and if they saw her in that state they might cancel the match themselves.

‘Then let them see,’ I said naïvely, ‘but more important right now is water. She must be dehydrated already. Get some saline.’ Situ reached into his pocket for a few takas to give to someone standing about, instructing him to go and buy saline.

‘Maybe we should move her,’ I suggested to Situ, ‘everything in this house must remind her of the wedding. No doubt there have been crowds of onlookers like us.’ I suggested we take her to his house.

‘I’ll ask,’ Situ said.

Surprisingly, Shapla’s father agreed. Without waiting for the saline Situ tried to give her a little water. He put a glass to her lips and she took a little. I wondered how we’d move her, would her joints unfreeze, the laws of anatomy and movement hold? I wondered about the sincere farmer who believed he was doing good as his daughter’s life seemed rumbling to disaster. I thought of what to do.

The sip of water must have worked like oil on rust because her hinges moved. Situ coaxed her and wrapping a chador around her, walked her out of the house. I followed at a distance, across the yard, and I grabbed the first stick I saw, for crowd control; as they walked ahead I swung wildly and yelled a bit, the way the locals did, to stop the neighbours from following us.

It was late afternoon as Situ and Shapla’s father supported her hunched mass along the road. A man from the colony stopped to ask what was wrong.

It was usual they'd come through our door, amongst the many, without any formalities.
‘Give her my room,’ I said, ‘I won’t go in there and you shouldn’t either. Does she know Amma?  Let Amma care for her.’  Situ’s living room filled with curious neighbours and contradictory advice. There was hardly room to breathe. They chatted as though at a party; it was a drama all the women could probably relate to in some part. I went to my room and closed all the shutters to prevent crowds appearing at the windows and then Amma and Situ’s wife took her there, while I hunted people from the house with the stick; not threateningly to the aunties and uncles but a little threatening to the children who otherwise wouldn’t budge.

With Shapla settled, Situ’s wife wished to set about making tea for her father, but he declined. With his daughter in Amma’s care he left. The women of the household busied themselves at the clay stove. They kindled straw and memories from their own weddings and the odd Hindi film; though in that house there were mostly love-marriages. They warmed rice and vegetables.

‘Should we call a doctor?’ I asked, knowing the nearest one was in town, ten kilometres to the north. ‘Wait and see,’ Situ said.

‘Probably it is only shock and the quiet might help,’ I said, ‘the change of scene.’ Shapla’s brother arrived with the saline, Situ mixed it and Amma served it.  ‘She shouldn’t get married,’ I said to Situ, ‘it’ll end badly. She should finish school first.’ He agreed but explained her father wouldn’t stop it because money had been spent.

‘Who cares about the money,’ I said, ‘tell her father I will give him the money if he calls it off. How much do weddings cost?’ In my head I calculated to see if I could really do that.  ‘Okay, but he won’t agree,’ Situ said, ‘it’s a pride matter.’

‘Then maybe I’ll call the police?’ I suggested, running out of options.  I already knew the general view: if the police came there’d be quite a deal of fuss and it might not be for any good result.

‘Already people are saying she is possessed, and if she doesn’t marry now she might never marry,’ Situ explained, ‘and even her family will be worried about having her in the house. In some families they would stop feeding her, or she would not eat through shame.’

‘No you have to ask her father,’ I said, ‘tell him I’ll pay and if he says no, tell him again and again until he agrees.’ I knew it was hopeless and a part of me always said I was a foreigner just learning about the village ways and I shouldn’t involve myself.

‘I’ll try,’ Situ promised.

As the river, in Hatiya life flows.  It knows not restriction of movement.
Those hours, I think, may have been the only peace Shapla had that day. She drank saline, ate a little, began to talk sensibly and went to sleep.  Despite her signs of recovery the diagnosis of shock was not widely accepted.  When he returned, Situ offered money but as expected Shapla’s father didn’t agree. Instead he thought the groom’s family might be satisfied if the jinn was exorcised and he’d brought a hujur with him for the purpose.

It’s strange but I don’t remember much of the exorcism. It was at a neighbour’s house; it was dark apart from kerosene lamps. We stood in a circle, the hujur beside Shapla; all the older men present. There were prayers I remember, holy passages recited and blown onto her, a tabiz or spell bracelet tied around her wrist. I remember glaring at the hujur from beginning to end so intensely I think he was scared of me. Shapla looked to the ground. I shouldn’t have been there at all.

The odd thing is, and I certainly didn’t understand it then, the exorcism may have helped Shapla a little, perhaps to get through the next day, the wedding we boycotted. Inevitably she must’ve also believed she was possessed.

Shapla’s father is respectful now. It took years before I could look at him kindly, as much as I knew him to be innocent, that he knew no better. Always I saw in his face the dark events of that time, her suffering.  Shapla’s marriage fell apart after an incident where she left the soap by the pond while washing clothes. The responsibilities were too much for she was just a child. Last I’d heard she was working in Dhaka as a maid.  All I’d managed for her was a few peaceful hours. It was a lesson; you can’t always win. And I failed her.

She’s married again now with two children, Situ said before she left the doorway as silently as she’d come.  Somehow she found a new husband from Sonadia, and although I’ve never met him as he wasn’t with her; although I only assume they are reasonably happy together, I had such a strong urge to seek him out and embrace him and thank him; and of course to congratulate him on his fine, fine choice.

In Australia doors are most often closed and if visitors should arrive unannounced they knock and enquire apologetically for having intruded; but in Hatiya life knows no restriction of movement: it’s in the growing paddies, in the birds and buffaloes.  In Hatiya life is not less free than the breezes, as the river it flows, moving along the road, amongst the trees and stepping at will into houses, crossing the thresholds of all the open doors.

Shapla’s name has been changed.

In Bangladeshi villages, including in Hatiya, doors are almost always open.



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