‘Ubiquitous Encounter’ by Mehreen Ahmed (Bangladesh)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

Minah knew Sidu, short for Siddharta, ever since they were children. Playmates for over fifteen years, both reached puberty not realizing how fast time had passed, but as each day went by their bonding grew stronger; they became the best of friends. Their favorite haunt was the mango grove by the village pond where they hung out everyday. O, what did they not do there? Laughed, skipped around, climbed up trees, larked about and danced insanely with the accompaniment of the flute when one was available. They sealed this relationship with the vow that they would always be there for each other, not knowing however, that in the cosmic scheme they have already been set apart for their inherent beliefs; also, for being a boy and a girl. While Minah’s Muslim family had great wealth, Sidu’s were orthodox Brahmins of the highest caste and in those days of carefree joy any misgivings was like a feather in a storm swept away by the winds of innocence.

And then, one day Minah came a little late as Sidu waited for her at the rendezvous. By now, Minah had turned eighteen and Sidu twenty. When she finally showed up, Sidu scrutinized her from head to toe, something was wrong, he thought.

“About time! You took for ever, didn’t you?” he asked. “And ­why are you dressed like that? You look – um – somewhat different.”

“Why? Because people came to see me today!”

She sat down on a grassy spot under the tree with Sidu following closely.

“Who? Who came to see you?”

“People!”

“What people?”

“How would I know? I guess I am to be married soon.”

“And when did you buy that saree? You never told me!”

“No, amma bought it for the occasion, what do you think of the color?” Minah asked him.

“It’s nice, just that – that ­­­­I am not used to seeing you in a saree.”

“Silly!” she blushed.

“You look pretty! Like a grown woman.”

Minah stood up and pulled him by the hand.

“Come, let’s do something.”

He rambled on as they walked the mango grove holding hands, unaware of the time that was soon going to be out of joint. Suddenly, something dropped from the trees above and landed with a thud on the dirt road before their feet.

“It’s a bird egg! We need to put it back,” Sidu said.

A couple of cuckoo birds nested in one of the mango trees. He picked it up, but the nest was too high.

“I’ll put it back,” she said.

Minah took the little egg from his hand and put one foot on Sidu’s shoulder as he bent down for her to get on. With both feet firmly placed, she stood up holding a thick branch of the tree with one hand while she set the egg gently back into the nest with the other. Her saree buffered Sidu’s head between her legs as he looked up. But no sooner was the job done she lost balance and they both tumbled down.

Incidentally, Sidu’s father, the school teacher, Mr Mukherjee who was passing by saw them fall. Being out of school since graduation, it had slipped Sidu’s mind that it was lunch time and his dad would come home for the break. He was also Minah’s teacher, one of her favorites. Mr. Mukherjee looked at them quizzically through his old-fashioned rimless round glasses as they stood up awkwardly arranging their disheveled clothes. Minah’s saree was all the way up to her knees; she was desperately pulling down to her ankles. Mr. Mukherjee ran down the dirt path to the low land of the pond to give them a hand.

“Are you hurt?” he asked.

“We are fine!” Sidu said.

“What happened?”

“Nothing serious, just fell down.”

“O, I can see that!”

After he found out what had happened, he could not hold his laughter.

“You’re going to be married soon, my dear! It’s not good to be seen with him anymore,” he said.

“So what?” Minah hissed.

The teacher was taken aback at her retort. Raising an eyebrow, he invited them to join him for lunch.

Sidu lived with his mum, dad and a younger sister in a small two-bedroom brick house close to the mango grove. They ate on the front veranda on the floor, which was also their kitchen. As they approached, Sidu’s mum, Monjushree, rolled out a paati on the floor as though she was expecting them, while a vaporous pot of hot rice boiled on kerosene stove. She had just finished stirring the rice with a wooden spoon when they stepped onto the veranda. She put the lid back on the pot and the spoon away.

“Hello Minah, how are you, love?” she asked. “Why? How lucky are we today? Our guest is a bride-to-be,” she smiled.

“Um! What have you been cookin` mashima?”

“A blushing bride already, eh? All your favorites!”

Mrs Mukherjee laid down five copper plates and glasses on the mat while Sidu poured a mug full of water down Minah’s hands. Her interlocked hands rubbed slightly with his as he did so; it made them both a little self-conscious. On the mat afterwards, Sidu sat in yoga position between Minah and his sister, Moushumi, while Mr and Mrs Mukherjee were seated opposite them.

Minah’s frequent visits to this house have always been looked upon favorably. Her own house was just next door, a two-storied, old-fashioned brick house. It had a big paved front and a back yard. A large round balcony glowed every evening when hurricane lanterns were lit. It was Minah who lit them one by one, every evening.

Her dad, as one of the village’s wealthiest rice farmers, owned a lot of land. This gave him a powerful station in the hierarchical social order.

“We would have to get you something nice for the wedding! Won’t we?” Mrs Mukherjee said.

She turned her gaze away from Minah to scan Mr Mukherjee’s face. The teacher smiled. It did not escape their eyes that whenever the “w” word was spoken, Sidu moved his fingers either too fast through the rice or gulped water so hurriedly that he once nearly choked.

“I don’t think Minah wants to talk about her wedding plans right now,” said Sidu.

He gave her a glance to which she lowered her head even further.

“Minah, are you going to move out once you are married?” Moushumi asked.

“Most likely,” said the teacher.

There was no getting away from this topic, Sidu thought. He cleaned his hands and got up, leaving his plate right there on the paati, avoiding everybody’s gaze.

Lunch was over soon after that. While Mrs Mukherjee scraped Sidu’s plate for the tired, malnourished dog at their doorstep, Sidu took Minah home.

***

Mrs Ruby Rahman sat down in an easy chair on the balcony.

“Now that you are about to be getting married, you need to stay home. The jeweler will come this afternoon to take orders,” Mrs Rahman said.

The lady of the house, Mrs Ruby Rahman, was a woman of few words. Despite all her wealth, she was a plain looking character.

“The match maker was here a little while ago, a wedding date has been fixed.” She said it with such a note of finality that it seemed as though it were carved in stone but Minah’s mind was racing. Who was he? What did he do for a living? Where would they live? But she was too afraid to ask! A maid beckoned Mrs Rahman inside as the fish seller had come to collect his money.

Minah stared blankly at the tall green grass that swayed in the late autumnal winds. The sun had slowly dipped into the blushing western sky. It was time to light the lanterns.

Slowly she bent down to pick up the match box stashed in the corner of one of those pillars. She pushed the glass cover off the bracket of the lantern at an angle to get to the wick underneath. She began to light them one after another, and when she came to the last one, turned instinctively around to look at her neighbor’s house. Her eyes were locked into Sidu’s. She smiled then went inside.

***

The wedding preparations were well under way. Minah heard people come and go downstairs every day. More maids and page boys were employed. Relatives came from far and wide to stay with them until it was over. As soon as the jewelers left, tailors came in to take measurements.

A few days before the wedding, Minah heard noises coming from Sidu’s house as she waited to see him that evening. There was a cry and Sidu stalked out of the house followed by Mrs Mukherjee’s appeal to stop. That evening, Minah slipped out of the house after dinner.

She ran down the stairs across the hall into the yard and out of the gate. Moushumi sat on the veranda steps as Minah pushed herself through their cane fence-door.

“Moushumi! What has happened here?” she asked.

Moushumi hesitated for a moment. “It’s Sidu,” she said.

“Well?”

“He asked baba, if he could marry you.”

“What! And then?”

Baba said no, something to do with our faith.”

Neither of them realized that Sidu’s parents appeared on the scene and overheard them whisper. The teacher asked Minah to come into the lounge room.

They faced each other as they sat on short bamboo stools while Mrs Mukherjee and Moushumi stood in the doorway.

“We love you very much,” he was saying. “But I am bound by the tenets of our religion; I can’t permit Sidu to marry you. Please forgive me, we would become ostracized, no one would marry Moushumi… can’t beat the odds, the stakes are too high. I wish we were born in another world… another era.”

“I must go then, mustn’t I?” she asked.

“Yes, you must,” he paused. “I’ll pray for your happiness, always. I wish you only the best. May bhagwan bless you my child.”

***

In the last few days Minah seemed to care for Sidu more than ever. She craved for his company, for his touch. They gazed at each other over the fence while their unspoken words burned in the kindled fire within.

One morning, a maid entered her room. Minah wasn’t there.

Not fully awake yet, Mr Rahman’s half-shut eyes squinted as he yawned. He got out of bed and went onto the balcony but saw nothing outside. Servants were sent all around to look for his daughter. This stirred up the entire village including Sidu and his parents. When he heard, Sidu took off in a flash as though he knew exactly where to find her. And he did! Minutes later he carried Minah through the gate of the big house.

As soon as they arrived, Ruby Rahman met them at the entrance.

“Where did you find her?” she asked.

Sidu staggered in with Minah in his arms and then carried her to her room in silence. He laid her down gently on the bed. Mr Rahman quickly sent for a doctor.

“Under the mango tree, by the pond. She’s okay, sleeping,” Sidu gasped.

When the doctor finally arrived, apart from Ruby he asked everyone else to leave the room. He turned Minah over and found a tiny bit of blood clot on the back of her head. There was a fracture there as though someone had tried to thwack her. She woke up disoriented in the midst of it all.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“That’s what we would like to know! How?… Why…?”

Afterwards, the doctor sat with them on the veranda and told Mr and Mrs Rahman over a cup of tea that Minah had been sleepwalking. “Most likely, she injured herself when she flopped on the ground thinking that it was her bed.”

***

The entire village came to know that she had slept under the mango tree and that Sidu brought her home. This gave rise to all kinds of speculation. Maids and housewives gossiped at every corner. And for days on, this is all they talked about. Some people said, she was jinxed, others thought she might be possessed and yet some women questioned her honor. They whispered, Sidu and Minah might have actually spent the night together, or else how did he know where to find her?

The wedding being just ten days away, the news traveled all the way to Minah’s would be in–law’s household and three days later the matchmaker was at their place.

“There have been some issues lately,” he said. “It is bothering a lot of people.”

“What do you mean?” Mr Rahman asked.

“Well! They want to break up the wedding over this incident. They think Minah might be possessed.”

“My God! No, no! She was just sleep-walking.”

“Look, they don’t want to know all that. She needs to be exorcised and that’s all there is to say. There are no two ways about it. You would have to put a ritual in place to expel that devil from her head.”

“And then? Would they rethink?”

“Yes,” he said briefly. “They might, for a price, more gifts for the groom and fifty thousand taka in cash.”

“Fifty thousand taka! But that’s a lot of money, even for me!” Mr Rahman said, raising his hands up in the air.

No sooner had the match-maker left, he sat mulling over this matter. In the eyes of the society, they would forever be stigmatized if this wedding did not take place. No honorable boy would marry his daughter again. If he had to sell land to raise money, so be it! Get Minah exorcised!

***

When everyone went off to sleep that night, Minah sneaked out in the dark. On her way, she peered in the direction of Sidu’s house, but saw nothing other than the slight glow of the wick lantern. Minah knew Sidu would be there. They met under the mango tree.

They stood before heavens and chose each other as partners, a celestial union which none of the world’s social or religious laws could have altered. They heard the azan gently drifting through the silence of the night, proclaiming the Morning Prayer.

“I need to go,” Minah said.

“I know,” replied Sidu.

Once home, she saw blood stains on the saree that she just took off. She hid it quickly under the bed and thought of washing it later. She had no more energy left; she went straight to bed.

***

Mr Rahman was able to sell some land eventually, but Minah did not need to get exorcized as she stopped sleepwalking for awhile. A wedding date was fixed again and it was due to happen within seven days once the money was paid. The deal had closed and Minah, to preserve the family honor, said nothing.

The night before the wedding they met again for the last time. They kissed and made love under the starlit sky. They both knew that they would never meet again.

After Minah left to live with her husband’s family, the tainted saree was found by Ruby Rahman. She washed it with her own hands and put it away in her closet. It was a secret she never shared with anyone.

Glossary:

amma: mother
anchal
: the loose end of the saree that flows down a woman’s shoulder
apu
: sister
azan
or adhān: announcement of official daily prayer times for Muslims made by a muezzin from the minaret of a mosque.
baba
: dad
bhagwan
: Hindu terminology for god
dhoti
: the bottom part of clothing worn by Hindu men only, especially in Calcutta
mashima
:  aunty in Hindu terminology
paati
: eating mat
palki
: palanquin, (in India and the East) a covered travel seat for one passenger, consisting of a large box carried on two horizontal poles by four or six bearers.
saree
:  an unstitched piece of cloth ranging from four to nine meters in length that drapes over a women’s body when it is worn
taka
: Bangladeshi currency

An earlier version of this story (‘Anomalous Duo’)
was initially published on Asia Writes in March 2011.

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Mehreen Ahmed is a writer from Bangladesh. Ever since 1987, her works have appeared in newspapers and literary magazine namely, The Sheaf, VelvetIllusions, Asia Writes and The Story Institute. These include short articles, creative as well as travel narratives. She has also published academic papers which have appeared in the leading journals of her area of study. Her book Jacaranda Blues was published in 2011. She has also reviewed books for ISTE: International Society of Technology in Education. She has completed two MA degrees, the first in English Literature from Dhaka University in Bangladesh and the second in Applied Linguistics (Computer Assisted Language Learning) at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.

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7 comments for “‘Ubiquitous Encounter’ by Mehreen Ahmed (Bangladesh)

  1. 29/08/2011 at 5:40 am

    That was an awesome short. In the glossary you mentioned the word “sari: an unstitched piece of cloth ranging from four to nine meters in length that drapes over a women’s body when it is worn” I thought that it was commonly used as a womans name in addition to being used for the name of the traditional garment. If not did I misunderstand the pronunciation of a similar name used in Asian regions?

  2. 30/08/2011 at 3:39 pm

    Marcus, after reading your comment I’m kind of thinking the same thing. I hope the author is going to reply to us at some point.

  3. Mehreen Ahmed
    31/08/2011 at 2:42 am

    Sari is the women’s garment popular in both Bangladesh and India. However, I believe there might be some Asian countries where Sari can be a proper noun … a name.

  4. 03/09/2011 at 3:45 am

    Wow! I love this post. You got a great story there! I like reading articles like this, because I am being exposed to foreign culture and learn more of them! A good avenue to understand traditions and norms of a certain group.

  5. 15/06/2012 at 6:04 am

    you are definitely a great writer, i will follow you.

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