‘The Sound of Language’ (Book Excerpt) by Amulya Malladi

Amulya Malladi
Amulya Malladi is the author of five bestselling novels published by The Random House Publishing Group. Born and raised in India, she has a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a master’s degree in journalism. She currently lives in Denmark. Below you can read an excerpt from her work The Sound of Language. Courtesy: Amulya Malladi.

EXCERPT

Entry from Anna’s Diary: A Year of Keeping Bees

15 March 1980

When we first decided to become hobby beekeepers, it was because our friend Ole had been doing it for a very long time and seemed to find a lot of solace in the rituals and responsibility. But I had some doubts.

The wings of honeybees stroke about 11,400 times per minute—hence the distinctive buzz. I wondered about the buzzing of the bees. I was sure that constant hum would drive me crazy. But now, after a few seasons, the buzz of the bees is like a soothing rhythm, almost like a song, the song of spring.

Chapter One

Skive, Denmark
January 2002

Bzzzzzz, that was how she thought it sounded.

Bzzzzzz, like the buzzing of a thousand bees.

The same sound she used to hear when she visited her, uncle, Chacha Bashir in Baharak. He had been one of the wealthiest men in town with his silk and bee farm. Silk and honey, he would say, “The riches of the kings are mine.” Then the Taliban killed him and no one knew what happened to his family.

That was how the Danish language sounded to Raihana, like the buzzing of Chacha Bashir’s bees.

The Danes mumbled, she thought as she watched them in supermarkets, on television, and on the streets. She had never seen so many white people before, and this was the first time she was seeing white people at such close proximity. So she stared at them, she just couldn’t help it.

They were different from what she had imagined. They were not all tall and fair and beautiful, some of them were short and ugly. And they mumbled when they spoke. The standing joke, Layla had told her, was that they spoke like they had hot potatoes in their mouths and Raihana agreed.

She had escaped a second brutally cold winter at the Jalozai refugee camp in North Western Pakistan when the Danish government offered her asylum. It was difficult for a single woman with no family, no husband, and no education to survive. Her choices had been limited. She could either die in a refugee camp where the cold wind from the mountains pierced its frozen fingers through the tents to all but peel the skin off the bones, or she could go to this country where her distant cousin and his wife had agreed to give her a home.

A part of her didn’t want to leave the camp. She had to wait, she thought, wait for Aamir, or maybe go back and look for him? But even she wasn’t foolish enough to go back to Kabul. Everyone knew that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the plane attacks in America and everyone knew that the Taliban were the same species as Al Qaeda. America would attack; that’s what powerful countries did. The Taliban would fight back, they said, and though the Afghans in Denmark, like many others, didn’t like the idea of American troops on Afghan soil, it was better than the Taliban. Some thought the Taliban had been unjustly rousted out of power, that they were the good guys.

So Raihana joined the small number of refugees living in Denmark, all of whom watched the news with desperation, wondering when they could go back. Afghanistan, they knew, would be a war ruin for several decades to come, but there was still hope. They wished that, somehow, Afghanistan would no longer be synonymous with tortured men and women living in penury. Maybe things would change and Afghanistan would become a safe haven, a progressive country, a normal country.

“Have to go home someday, can’t live here all our life can we?” Kabir would say almost every day. “Don’t unpack everything, Raihana, we’ll go back soon.”

“Go back to what?” Layla would ask her husband, her hands on her hips as her son, Shahrukh, pulled at her salwar.

“Mor, slik,” he said, pleading with his mother to give him candy, which she had strict rules about not giving to him.

“Look at him, hai, Shahrukh, it is not Mor, it is Ammi, say Ammi,” Kabir said as he always did, but Shahrukh never took him seriously. “Mor is some Danish woman, not Layla, she is Ammi. Now say Ammi.”

“Leave him alone, he’s just two,” Layla said. “And he’s calling me mother, not some evil name. All his friends call their mothers Mor, so he calls me Mor.”

Raihana watched the young couple battle about going back, about staying. She had been scared when the people from the Danish immigration told her that Kabir wanted her to live with him. She remembered Kabir from her childhood, a long time ago. He was her mother’s sister’s husband’s brother’s son. The families had not been close, only meeting at weddings and celebrations. Kabir’s family had lived in Kabul while hers settled in a village outside Kabul. But he was the only one who had offered her a chance to leave the refugee camp and she had taken it. She hadn’t had much of a choice. The rumor was that Aamir had died in a Taliban prison, but a part of her never believed it. However, she knew she had to leave Pakistan because whether she liked it or not, there was a good chance the rumor about Aamir was true.

But she wished—wished until she went mad with it—that he was alive. She wished they had been able to leave together. She wished she wasn’t alone and cold because even though Kabul had been hell, she had had someone to share it with, someone to keep her warm. But in the refugee camp in Pakistan, there was emptiness, insecurity, threats from other men, and fear.

It had been a stroke of luck that when she rattled out the names of relatives and where she thought they lived, she had named Kabir. The others had not panned out, maybe they couldn’t be found or maybe they hadn’t wanted her, she didn’t know. What she did know was that Kabir and Layla had welcomed her with open arms and that was a debt she would never be able to repay.

As she sat at the dining table chopping carrots for the Kabuli pilau she was making for dinner, Raihana was grateful for the turn her life had taken after she’d moved to Denmark. When she first came to Skive six months before, she had been worried that Kabir would be a religious type. She didn’t intend to wear a hijab or an abaya not after having left Afghanistan and the rules of the Taliban so far behind.
Kabir hadn’t asked her to wear a hijab and neither had Layla, who never went out without donning one herself, in addition to an abaya. Kabir, who drank merrily on Friday nights to celebrate the weekend, didn’t ask his wife to get rid of her hijab and she didn’t ask him to stop drinking.

“Islam says smoking and drinking is wrong,” Layla told Raihana on one of the Friday nights when Kabir was out of the house. “What do you think?”

Raihana didn’t know what to say about things like this. She believed that people should do what they wanted but knew that was not what Layla wanted to hear.

“I think it is wrong,” Layla said before Raihana could answer. It wasn’t like Raihana was talkative, and she didn’t always respond to people. Layla had met women like her, men too, people who had scars so big hidden under their skin that they were really one big wound. She didn’t know the details about Raihana’s life in Afghanistan, but no one knew the details. Raihana wasn’t talking and her past was not well known.

When Raihana had first arrived, KhalaSoofia, who lived next door, had tried to get Raihana to talk about her past, about her life in Kabul, the dead husband but Raihana didn’t say anything. KhalaSoofia had come to Denmark in the early nineteen nineties. Her husband had been a doctor in Jalalabad. Her son had died of cancer, and her daughter had moved to America with her husband, also a doctor, and their children. Soofia talked about moving there all time.

Soofia’s husband, Dr. SidiqRehman, had spent several years when he first came to Denmark, petitioning the Danish Integration Minister and the Danish Medical Association, and writing letters to EU Parliament members, that he should be allowed to work in Denmark without having to go to medical school again. He understood that he had to learn Danish, which he had done by diligently going to language school.

Now he’d stopped the petitions and the letters. He didn’t come out his house much. He was depressed, they said, because he couldn’t practice medicine. Still everyone called him Doctor Chacha. While Doctor Chacha silently mourned the loss of his life’s work, Soofia kept hoping that her daughter would send for her.

“Visa problems,” she always said. “But it will happen soon. You know daughters, they need their mothers.”

Everyone nodded patiently and no one pointed out that Soofia’s daughter rarely wrote and when she did the letters were filled with excuses as to why she couldn’t find the means to bring her parents to America. Soofia read out the letters to whoever would listen and would try to put a positive spin on her daughter’s excuses.

“You are just like my daughter, my Deena,” Soofia told Raihana when they met at a birthday party. Habib and Jameela were celebrating their son’s first birthday and had invited all the Afghans in Skive for a party. It had been a tumultuous first year for the boy, who had been born with heart problems, but after two surgeries he seemed fine and the doctors predicted he would have no further problems.

Raihana was barely paying attention to Soofia, who talked constantly, either about her daughter or about local Afghan community gossip. But soon enough, Soofia got to Raihana.
“So, where is your husband?” she asked.

Raihana was not stupid. She knew people were curious.
“Dead,” she said quietly and then tried to change the subject by asking Soofia about her gold bangles. Soofia was easily distracted, especially when someone talked about her jewelry or her clothes. She had brought along her things from Jalalabad. She’d had the time. She had not been rushed to save her life. She had not had to escape after seeing a bloodbath, running and hiding through plains and mountains to enter another hell in a refugee camp in Pakistan.

“Dead?How?”Soofia asked and Raihana just smiled and shrugged. “You have to talk, if you keep it bottled in…talk, tell us. We’re your family now,” Soofia insisted, but Raihana didn’t have the words. She was considered strange by most, a little too quiet. She had obviously been through some unspeakable tragedy, they all sensed. When she talked about going back to Kabul, it just confirmed their suspicions.

“From Iran it is easier to get into Afghanistan,” Walid Ali Khan told her as he sipped tea from Layla’s priced tea cups.
Walid Ali Khan and Zohra were Kabir and Layla’s closest friends and they visited them often for lunch on the weekends and then stayed through dinner and past their children’s bedtime.
Walid and Zohra came to Denmark six years ago with one child. Between maternity leaves and giving birth to two children, Zohra still went to language school, while Walid worked at the supermarket Kvickly.
“But now is not a good time to go. You know how the Americans are bombing from Kabul to Kandahar and everything in between?” Walid said shaking his head.

“Killing Taliban they say, but they are also killing innocent Afghans, bastards,” Kabir said. “Bastard Americans and bastard British people! All of them saying we Muslims are evil. Propaganda like that is not right. Yesterday, in business school my marketing teacher asks me if I think my wife should wear a burkha and sit at home. And she asks me if I think it is okay to beat my wife. What kind of questions are those? What kind really?Hai, Layla, have I ever hit you?”

Layla sighed. “Kabir….”

“Have I?”

“Allah, you are stubborn!”

“Maybe I should,” Kabir said angrily. “Apparently, all Muslim men beat up their wives. What, Raihana, your husband beat you too?”

And then all eyes turned to Raihana in the hope that she’d drop another scrap of information about her past and her husband. The bits and pieces Kabir had garnered from friends and family who lived in Pakistan and told the others was not much. Apparently, Raihana’s husband had been a teacher and the Taliban had been after him for not following their new curriculum. His brother-in-law had also been anti-Taliban, a doctor who treated women when the Taliban had prohibited it. He had been killed, and so had his wife.

“Walid hit me once,” Zohra said suddenly.

“I didn’t hit her, a book slipped and fell on her head,” Walid cried out and the conversation turned away from Raihana.

In the small city of Skive in northern Denmark, there were just fifteen Afghan families, and these Afghans had achieved what they never had in Afghanistan. For the first time in her life, Raihana saw a Pashtun eat at the same table as an Uzbek. The Pashtuns, the Hazara, the Tajik, and the Uzbeks had been fighting for as long as Raihana remembered and now in this strange country they huddled together, accepting each other and their differences because beyond the huddle was the white man, looking at all of them with equal suspicion.
To Raihana it was still unreal—that she was not in Afghanistan anymore, that she was in this cold, and wet country. Sometimes she closed her eyes and pretended she was back home, surrounded by the smells and scents of Kabul. Sometimes she remembered the taste of sugarcane juice and felt her insides churn in thirst.

But life in Skive was not bad; she had to admit, especially for a family like Kabir’s. She didn’t understand why Kabir complained so much. They had rented a nice house with two floors, bought a 20-year old and functional car and installed their son in a free daycare, which was paid for by the county.
Kabir made frequent trips to Germany to buy spices and other things they needed, and had even been to Pakistan on vacation the year before to visit his uncle, who was dying of cancer. Since he hadn’t died yet, Kabir was planning another trip to Lahore as soon as he had enough money saved.
Money was always tight in the house, but they still went to Legoland with Shahrukh, sometimes drove to the zoo in Aalborg, went to the movies and entertained friends. Kabir and Layla had a full life with friends, family and most of their material needs fulfilled.

“But we have to learn Danish,” was Layla’s big complaint about living in Denmark. “And it is so hard, Raihana.”

Raihana couldn’t even comprehend how she would learn a language that sounded like buzzing bees. There didn’t seem to be any substance to it, just froth lolling out of everyone’s mouth.

“You’ll start in module 1 because you’re a beginner. There are five modules and I can’t wait to be finished with this stupid language,” Layla told her as Kabir drove them to the language school on Raihana’s first day.
It had taken the Skive County over six months to get Raihana signed up for language school, which had been just the right amount of time. Raihana had had the time to learn about her surroundings and get through the cruel Danish winter. With spring getting closer, the idea of bicycling early in the morning to go to school was not as frightening.
In the winter, Layla seemed to have managed riding to school, the supermarket and ever where else with just minimal complaining, while Raihana had stayed at home. She had cooked and cleaned and had baby sat Shahrukh, allowing Kabir and Layla to go to a Hindi movie in Aarhus or to visit friends in Copenhagen, which was too long a drive to make with a little boy.
By the time the Integration Centre had sent her a letter stating that she had been signed up for language school, she was ready to leave the house and do something beyond housework.

Layla was exceptionally proud of her language accomplishments. She had passed module 4, which meant that she could reasonably communicate in Danish and understand most Danish, spoken and written. She hoped to pass the final exam, Prøvei Dansk 3, in the summer, after which she could look for a job.

“Maybe I will go back before I have to pass all these modules,” Raihana wondered aloud.

“Yes, yes,” Kabir said and Layla snorted.

“We are here, Raihana and we live here,” she said. “If you keep one foot in Afghanistan, you will be neither here nor there.”

“But we will go back,” Kabir insisted. “Don’t listen to Layla! Soon, very soon things will be….”

“Don’t listen to him,” Layla snapped. “He has passed the Danish exam and is going to business school. He doesn’t have to pass anymore Danish exams. He talks about going back but knows there is nothing to go back to. We now live in Denmark.”

“Just until we get citizenship and then we leave,” Kabir continued. “But soon, Raihana, soon, we will go back, you wait and see.”

Layla snorted again. “You are here,” she said, “Live here, not in the past in a country that you can’t go back to.”

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