SABRINA: THE BANGLADESHI
In the valley Sabrina is known as the Bangladeshi. She doesn’t know why. She has been called that since she was born. Perhaps because she speaks Bangla with her parents and people here assume everyone who speaks the language is Bangladeshi. But then she can’t write the language. She only speaks it. Haltingly. Why are people teasing me always? She would ask in a petulant voice. She is as Indian as anyone living in the valley, as she was born in India, owns an Indian birth certificate, and has her name in an Indian ration card.
She also has a voter’s card, and an Adhaar card, too. Wasn’t this enough to certify her as a bonafide Indian? Still people continue to call her a Bangladeshi because her parents were illegal immigrants from Bangla Desh, the beautiful country of rivers and estuaries to the East of India. What’s their problem? Why are they so cruel? She would ask in frustration.
Her parents had come to the valley thirty years ago when it was a barren piece of land. The Artist Village had not even been built at that time. Her Abba, a mason and an odd-job man, had erected a hut from a few bamboos and plastic sheets. He had found work in a housing complex being built to the east of the valley. Though he could build neat brick walls, lay tiles, and do a decent layer of plaster; his home remained the crudest of structures. This was always the case with artisans: tell an artist to paint something for his wall and he would create the worst painting of his life. Tell him to do something for a sum of money and he would unravel his best work so far. He considered this – his hut – comfortable enough because in his country most poor people lived in such structures. The hut had enough space for three people to sleep in the night. There was a small kitchen area and a small verandah. All their belongings were stacked against the walls of corrugated iron sheets. There weren’t many huts in the slum colony and one could appropriate any space one wanted.
During the day when Abba was away at work Ammi found work as a maid in the nearby houses in a housing complex to the east of the valley. Sabrina grew up without proper education. She was sent to school, studies up to fourth standard, but that was for the free mid-day meal. She was rather attractive, with a shapely plump face, thick hair, which was why Abba didn’t want her to go to school. Suppose some boy abducted her? These things happen in the strange country he had made home for thirty years. Abba told her that she only had to learn a bit of reading and writing and a little arithmetic to get along in life. Sabrina could read and write Hindi and a bit of English.
He told her that henceforward she would help Ammi to do the housework of the colony to the east of the valley. There was work in plenty and therefore Sabrina learnt to sweep, swab, wash clothes, cook, dust, and generally do all work in a household. She did it with speed also. The housewives complained that she was like a toofan, a whirlwind, when she did her work: she would move furniture around, fold the carpets and forget to return them to their space, forget to return utensils to their places, left swabs of dirt in the toilet floor unscrubbed, and was out of the house in a few minutes.
“I am there to help with their work. They also should do some work, not leave it entirely to me. What if I didn’t show up?” She would complain. In fact, complaining came easily to her.
When Sabrina was around ten the Artist Village came up in the middle of the valley. Though meant as an exclusive residential area for artists and writers, the houses made of rough jungle wood rafters and tiled roofs found no takers in the said community. Then the authorities relaxed the ownership to include people who weren’t artists. The new residents tore up the one-storeyed houses and built ugly concrete structures to suit their living requirements.
Sabrina worked for a musician and a writer in this community. The bald musician would play the guitar everyday and his wife – gifted with a good voice - would sing. They had a band that played old Hindi film songs in a show which they named “Surtaal.” The man, who used to sell medicines, was laid off and spent the whole day sleeping or playing the guitar while his wife was away working in a bank. Since the woman was tired when she came from work Sabrina had to cook two meals, in addition to sweeping, swabbing, and washing of clothes. They had two children.
The writer’s story was indeed sad. Hailed as the next great writer in Marathi, her latest novel was panned by all who read it. They said it contained gratuitous sex and therefore didn’t suit their sensibilities. Disappointment led to depression and she was unable to even cook food for herself and her husband. It was rumoured that she had run away from home to marry the man who is now her husband. He, a government employee, who dabbled in writing film scripts, had also left his wife to marry the writer. None of his scripts had been converted into a movie, at least, not yet. The two writers lived a life of unfulfilled dreams, unwashed clothes, and unclean living quarters until Sabrina swept, swabbed, and cooked for them. The writer spent her days locked up in her room, looking out of the window, hardly speaking to her husband. The husband had retired from a government corporation, and having failed in script writing, spent most of his time fetching whatever Sabrina asked to be bought for the kitchen.
One day Sabrina’s Abba fell down from the scaffolding of the housing project and had to be hospitalised. Luckily, he broke only a leg and had a few scratches on the other. The hospital put his broken leg in a cast and sent him home, asking him to come for periodic checkups. He would spend his days at home complaining about not having enough space and it being hot. He would talk about going back to Bangladesh, his golden land. “Amar Sonar Bangla,” he would say often, revealing the mind of a frustrated poet hidden inside his hard exterior.
To this Ammi would say, “What will Sabrina do there? She can neither speak Bangla well, nor write.”
“She will live like us, in that golden land of ours.”
“She can go on living here. She is a citizen of this country.”
“You mean she will live here all alone?” He loved his only child.
“You find her a good man, who will take care of her and then go wherever you want.”
So the search began for a man for Sabrina. Many came through Abba’s friends but were rejected by Ammi as being too short, too dark, too silent, or, too voluble.
“You are being too choosy, all men aren’t as virtuous as they once were,” Abba teased.
“I will find her a good man, unlike the one I got.”
“Then you will have to wait for eternity, woman?” Abba would yell in anger from the cot, the only piece of furniture in the house.
“Fate has destined a man for her. Let it decide.”
So the days went. Till Abdul came into their lives. He said he was a mason by profession and an Indian from Hyderabad. He wasn’t too tall or too short; he didn’t talk too much or too little. Most importantly, he wasn’t too dark. He wore his shirt inside his trousers, held together by a belt. His hair was a bit long but was well combed and maintained. His feet were well shod with expensive-looking leather. He carried himself well, imitating the mannerisms of movie star Shahrukh Khan, whom he liked. Come to think of it, his features, too, resembled the star’s.
The wedding was quick and uneventful. Sabrina wore a red sari with lot of gold filigree and lot of glass bangles. Abdul had no family in the city, so nobody came except a few friends, whom he introduced as roommates. Abba and Ammi had very few friends who came including the Bengali housewife. The musician and the writer didn’t come. They gave Sabrina a cash bonus for the wedding. The Nikah was conducted by the Kazi of the nearby mosque and the reception was held in a hall hired for the occasion. There was no pomp, celebration, dancing, or music. Just eating the food, taking a few pictures, and then going home. Abdul slept in Sabrina’s hut, Abba slept in a neighbour’s hut, which was empty, and Ammi slept on the floor of the musician’s living room for a few days. It was then Sabrina realised the trauma of being married to a man whom she barely knew and for which she was least prepared. Nobody had told her about sex, and she found it too crude and repulsive: the touching of bodies, the smell, the stickiness, the feeling of being violated. When Ammi came home in the morning she wept on her shoulder. “Everything will be alright, everything will be alright,” Ammi said. Abba pretended not to notice, as he talked to Abdul.
A few days later Abba told Sabrina that Ammi and he were going back to Bangladesh. They had enough of living in a foreign country and wanted to rest in their own golden land. They bundled whatever they had into two wooden trunks that Abba had had made by a carpenter friend. They carried some essential utensils with them in a plastic bucket. The day they were to leave, Sabrina and Abdul went with them in a taxi to Kurla Terminus. It was a sad day for Sabrina as she said goodbye on a platform that smelled of urine, orange peels, and the strange smell of distances.
“How can I live without you?” she sobbed on Ammi’s shoulder, her wrap covering her face.
“Abdul is a good man, he will take care of you,” Ammi said.
“How do you know he will?” She blew her nose.
When the train left, as she watched the last bogie disappear into the distance and become small lines and dots, she hadn’t removed the wrap, and kept sobbing. The next day Abba’s call came on her cell phone informing her that they had reached Silguri from where they would be transported illegally to Bangla Desh by an agent. The voice crackled, buzzed, and then grew silent.
Sabrina was now working in homes Ammi had worked before, so her work load had increased. The money also came which she kept in a bundle, in a plastic bag, under the mattress. Marriage and work had changed her and she was no longer a young and attractive girl. The glow had gone from her face. She became fat and her face looked puffy. Abdul would go somewhere on the pretext of finding work and would come early saying nobody had hired him. Some days he came home smelling of alcohol, didn’t eat, dropped on the bed and went to sleep. Some days he wouldn’t go at all.
One day when Sabrina came back from work she found the door unlocked. She looked around but Abdul was not to be seen in the neighbourhood of the slum. His wallet, his watch, the few coins he kept on the bed were gone. Tremulously she raised the mattress. Blood pounded in her head, her heart seemed to thud against her jaws, her breathing grew heavy. The plastic bag was there! Relief flooded her. When she lifted it to examine the contents, she discovered most of her savings were gone. Flown! Out of the ten thousand rupees she had, she had only a thousand left.
“Unfaithful man, cheat, why didn’t you take that also?” she wailed as she told the Bengali housewife what happened, “He didn’t even speak a few dozen words to me.”
“Why don’t you complain to the police?” The Bengali housewife asked.
“They will say I am a Bangladeshi. Besides, I don’t want to go to the station. I have seen it once when Abba was arrested for being an alien. I don’t want to stare into their cruel eyes.”
“But you are an Indian, born in India; you have a ration card, a voter’s card to prove it.”
“What’s the use now?”
After Abdul left her, the harassment began. It was as if the world had turned against her. She was stared at wherever she went. Small pebbles began landing on her corrugated roof with a thud. At night she couldn’t sleep because of the noise. It seemed everyone considered throwing pebbles on her roof as the new hobby. She would cower on the cot, apprehensive, waiting for the next “thud” sound. Nights became unbearable.
Neighbours started saying all kinds of things about her, now that there was no man in the house. They started calling her a “Bangladeshi” more often. They threw their garbage and litter in the small verandah in front of her house when she was away working. They started finding ways of humiliating her.
Then the police came. They frightened her with their guns and supercilious attitude. They said they were checking for illegal Bangladeshis. She protested that she was born in India and had a ration card, a voter’s card, and an Adhaar card. They wouldn’t listen. The only alternative was to buy their silence. She knew they could be bought and paid them all the cash she had with her.
Now all her money was gone. She ate at the musician’s house and pruned her expenses to the bare minimum. She was able to maintain herself till the next pay day when the money came. Meanwhile the pebbles didn’t stop dropping on her hut. Her nights became tormented. She would cover her head with her blanket and try to sleep. But the “thud”, “thud”, “thud”, wouldn’t stop.
“I will report you to the police,” one night she came out and shouted at them when she could bear it no longer.
“Have you no shame behaving with a woman thus?”
They laughed. In the darkness she couldn’t see who they were. The stones rained. It rained through the night. Stones and intermittent sounds of laughter. Inside the hut she trembled in terror. It was worse than being attacked by a wild animal. She thought she would become sick, or, go mad.
She asked for permission to sleep on the floor of the musician’s bungalow in Artist Village. They were kind people and allowed her to sleep in their house.
Then one day Abba called on her cell phone. She wept and told him about Abdul and the harassment from neighbours. She said she couldn’t bear it any longer. Then Ammi came on the phone.
“Ammi you said Abdul will take care of me. Where is he?” She said between sobs.
“Allah’s wish! What can I say? I didn’t know he was a scoundrel, a thief.”
Abba came back on the line. He was crying, a grown man’s tears. His voice was broken, deliberate, and full of concern. He told her she doesn’t have to live like that anymore.
“Sell the hut. You will get a good price for it, at least fifty thousand rupees. Then come to Siliguri, I will come there to get you.”
When she reached her hut that night, a neighbour told her the police had come again. They wanted her to come to the station. She didn’t go. She took some clothes and went to sleep at the musician’s house.
Before going she told the neighbour the hut was for sale. Word spread very fast. People started coming to her with offers.
“Twenty thousand,” “thirty thousand,” “forty thousand,” they said.
“Nothing less than fifty thousand,” her voice was firm.
A man came with a big bundle of notes, “here’s fifty thousand,” he said. She didn’t know a hut in a slum would fetch so much money. He said the hut must be empty by the next morning. She said she will empty it just then and he could consider the hut as his. She gathered all her belongings in an iron trunk, even her bridal sari. She left the cot and utensils for the new owner. By then a crowd had gathered. She didn’t say goodbye to any of them. Inside she burned with anger and disgust at their behaviour.
Carrying the trunk on her head and with the money safe inside her blouse she went to the musician’s house. She ate and slept there for a few days. The musician helped her buy a railway ticket to Silguri. On the day of departure he dropped her to the Kurla Terminus in his car. Sabrina didn’t cry when she waved at them from the departing train. She only smiled.
That was the last the valley saw of the Bangladeshi.