Daria, the heroine of the book is born under unusual circumstances that cause the people of her small village to gossip; yet as she grows she becomes an intelligent, sensitive and spiritual beauty that one feels is destined for a perfect life. After a flood, a boy is found on the bank of her river. Daria’s parents adopt the boy, and Daria befriends him. As they grow Daria begins to inhabit Mizan’s dreams and thoughts, but a sudden meeting with anglophile Ali Baba brings everything crashing down around Daria. She forgets her upbringing and falls madly in love with him and after her hasty wedding, she moves to Baba Lodge and is brought into the suffocating life of Ali Baba and his family.
Here she lives a life unloved and psychologically abused until she gets pregnant. Now she begins to hope that finally her potential for love, luck and happiness will be realised through her new-born child. Yet relations between Daria and her in-laws deteriorate further. Daria finds herself torn between the religious mandate of Islam to stay with and obey her husband and the call of her intellect and instincts to flee and forge a different life for her daughter.
A whisper went round the little village of Gulab Ganga during the days around Daria’s birth. It said, “Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, defied God when she refused to give up the thought of having a daughter.” She had her four sons, three miscarriages and one stillborn daughter. But yet she couldn’t accept the idea of not having a daughter in her lap. When the most trusted doctor in the neighbourhood advised her against trying to get pregnant, she, like many in her dilemma, decided to get help from supernatural sources. The road there would be reached by means of a man, who claimed to be a Pir, a spiritual person. He lived on the outskirts of Gulab Ganga. A good many people went to him to catch cattle thieves and poachers, a good many went to get better crops, a good many wished to be cured of some incurable diseases, and a good many wished for a male heir to carry on the family name. And on rare occasions, someone would actually call on him to get a female child; to light up a family with only male offspring. And this was partly true in the case of Jharna Begum, Daria’s Ammu, but mainly it was because she felt half a woman without a daughter.
It was exactly one year before Daria’s birth that Jharna Begum woke up on one occasion at a time that was neither morning nor night; night’s blackness was slowly oozing away at the touch of first light. A soft and transparent time, that could be called morning-night. She washed herself, took a bath, said her morning prayers, read some verses in the holy Quran. Then on an empty stomach, wrapped a shawl round her shoulders, opened the safe and took out a bundle of notes. Some fresh and crisp. Some dirty and limp. She put the money in her bag and sidled out of the room. Azad Chaudhury, her husband, was away on business and that suited her very well, because he wouldn’t have approved of her going to meet a Pir, whose credibility was dubious. The rest of the family was asleep. She took a deep breath, crossed the front veranda and stepped down onto the ground along the left gable of the house. She continued to the stable that was further off in the same direction. There she met the servant boy Gafur and the housemaid Gulabi. She told Gafur to keep guard on the house for an hour. After a moment, she was seated in the coach with Gulabi and the coachman, Abdullah, on her way to the Pir, the saint, who was to serve as a link between her and the supernatural powers.
It was a humid morning. The ground was covered with dew. On the horizon white haze rolled softly, blurring the contours and colours of everything. Beyond that the river sparkled in the first glow of the morning sun and some fishermen cast their nets in it; fishnets shimmered in the air like dewy cobwebs before falling into the water, but the haze blocked the view. The wagon picked its way in between the chequered boards of rice-fields. Sometimes it rattled; sometimes it thudded on the bumpy earthen road. Jharna Begum sat erect, her lips moving. Most probably reciting holy verses. Alongside the road some peasants were already at work. Some bent over the water-covered field to set rice plants, and some ploughed; peasant feet submerged up to the ankles in the muddy water; peasant hands disappearing under the water to transplant rice seedlings.
The Pir (said to be) lived in a small hut on the outskirts of the village. It was made of mud and bamboo canes with a sloping hay roof and stood in the middle of beaten ground surrounded by sprawling bamboo clusters that were partially veiled by the grey mist. From behind the hut an old mango tree spread its branches over the low roof. Haze lingered among the foliage of this tree as well, but just above the roof Jharna Begum could discern some baby mangoes. Grey-green, round and wet, silently growing out of hardness. A skinny hen walked on the patch of ground in front of the hut pecking at whatever it could find; a few dragonflies sat lazily on a tuft of withered grass-straws. A breeze blew, carrying a scent of water and river. The mango leaves hummed. The bamboo leaves whispered. Gulabi remained standing on the spot. Jharna Begum took a deep breath and approached the hut.
The room was murky in spite of the hurricane lamp that hung from the ceiling. Soft shadows danced on the walls as the tongue of the flame flickered inside the soot smeared glass. Major parts of the walls were plastered with various pictures from the holy city of Mecca. High stepping camels and Bedouins, dusty date trees around oases, scalp-shorn-men — pilgrims-in-white, women — pilgrims-in-black, the black holy stone and the white gathering around it. The only window was covered with a drape. In one corner out of a small brass bowl rose a fine stream of smoke; scents of sandalwood, camphor, incense and rose essence. An earthy dampness hung in the room.
The Pir was seated on the floor on a mat. He received Jharna Begum with due respect and asked her to settle down opposite him. She was hesitant; nevertheless she obeyed him as though in a trance. Perspiration gleamed above her lips, studded the tip of her nose, and her forehead. It grew in her armpits and between the fold of her breasts. A sweaty fear crawled down her back and she swallowed a lump of saliva. Words pounded in her head, while her stomach was hard like a tight fist. But she wouldn’t give in to her nervousness. So, gathering up her courage, she began to talk. Her voice trembled, tongue dried out. Words came out of her tense mouth; first staccato and then woven together into meaningful sentences. The man murmured and nodded.
After half an hour when Jharna Begum took the coach home, the sun had risen to a higher level in the sky. It was white. The haze had resolved into a fluttering piece of transparent cloth. She put her chin on the windowsill and looked out. Windblown ringlets danced on her temples. Her eyes saw the pale green rice plants, the mud coloured peasants with their mud coloured feet and hands under the muddy water, the tilting wicker-hats on their heads, the pelvic zone of a cow that lifted its tail to drop some dung, gleaming sun on the tails of diving kingfishers, and the shimmering river beyond; but with her heart she saw a baby girl. A baby girl in her arms. In her hands she held a green bottle. A bottle filled with enchanted water. Water, which would help her to mother a baby girl. Now she just had to ensure that one of her servants collected natural water for her by pressing the brim of an earthen pot against the stream of the river. Seven Thursdays she would bathe in that water eked out with the enchanted water she now had in that tiny green bottle in her hands. Imagine getting a baby girl! To get a baby at such an age! Forty years! God, Allah, the almighty. At such an age one should only wait for death to come. At such an age it was entirely legitimate to die, it was a well-acknowledged die-able age. But instead she was preparing to give life to a new human baby. A baby girl. Jharna Begum felt a mysterious wave of contentment sweeping over her. While the morning breeze, now crisp from the warming sun, fondled her face, she smiled. Like a child who had found the very bottle with the genie. She held the precious bottle tenderly. Azad Chaudhury was, of course, a little bit worried about his wife’s sudden obsession with the matutinal baths on Thursday mornings. But he decided to humour her. And therefore, he even went to bed with her as per her wish after her ritual baths with that magical water. They built and furnished a small room in the furthest end of the dwelling. The rest of the family members were told that Jharna Begum’s physical condition demanded total seclusion from daily life. Initially Azad Chaudhury had thought it would be unnecessary to build a new room only for seven Thursday mornings. But, soon, very soon, he changed his mind. For it didn’t really take him too long to realize that he enjoyed every second, every infinitesimal fraction of each second he spent there together with his wife. In secret they called this room ‘the love nest’ (even though the phrase sounded banal in their experienced ears). Within the four walls of that nest after twenty years of marriage they once again experienced the ecstasy of newly found love.
About the Author:
Dilruba Z. Ara was born in Bangladesh. Nurtured on Greek mythology by her father, and hearing Indian fairy tales as bedtime stories from her mother, Dilruba had her first story published when she was eight years old. While in university at the age of twenty, she met and married her husband, a Swedish Air Force officer, and moved to Sweden, where she obtained degrees in English, Swedish, Classical Arabic and linguistics. She now teaches Swedish and English in Sweden. An accomplished, exhibited artist, her paintings have been used as the covers for the Bangladeshi, Greek, and U.S. editions of A LIST OF OFFENCES.
Visit her website at www.dilrubazara.com.
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