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Sabina heard the rumor on her way back from the nearby grocery store. She had just entered Lane No. 5 when she saw Champa Khala, the local gossip of Phultoli, standing in front of the small paan shop that sold cigarettes, betel leaves, pickles, and similar treats. Sabina cursed her luck as Champa waved at her. A woman in her late forties, Champa’s favorite occupation in life was to meddle in other people’s business. From lunchtime till evening, she roamed around the neighborhood to sniff out even the smallest bit of news. If she found anything of interest, she would make sure that everybody in Phultoli knew about it with all the necessary embellishment. Sabina watched the woman take a shiny, emerald-hued betel leaf from the shopkeeper, sprinkle a little katechu and a few slivers of betel nut, then fold the leaf into a triangle and put it in her mouth.
Chewing on her precious preparation, Champa walked alongside Sabina and philosophized about life and its unfairness. She spoke of her good-for-nothing husband with whom she had fallen in love as a callow youth. Her parents had received so many good proposals for her, but she made the wrong choice and ruined her own life. Sabina nodded along, only half listening. Eventually, Champa got to the point. She asked in a conspiring whisper if Sabina had seen any strange activity at her neighbors Jamshed and Marjina’s house.
Sabina looked at Champa with a blank stare. She knew the couple well – they lived next-door in a dilapidated two-storied building owned by Jamshed’s maternal aunt Shafia Khatun. But she could not think of any strange activity and wondered what Champa was insinuating. She recalled the consternation caused by Champa about Aziz, the local mason. When the fellow got married for a second time, after the mysterious disappearance of his first wife, there was a rumor that he had killed her, or she had committed suicide. Champa was the first person who claimed that she had seen Joynub, Aziz’s deceased wife, loitering near the rented house where Aziz lived with his new wife. It became the talk of the town, and soon other people also started seeing Joynub’s ghostly apparitions. One evening, a young girl fainted because she thought she had seen the deceased woman peeping through her window. In the end, Aziz was forced to leave Phultoli as nobody wanted anything to do with him. Then two months later, someone brought the news that Joynub was not dead at all. She had divorced her husband as he was having an affair, and had moved in with her parents in another part of the Dhaka city.
The rumor had escalated because of Champa, but the woman appeared unfazed and had already moved on to other things. So, while she didn’t like Champa, Sabina also did not wish to make an enemy of her. “What kind of activity are you talking about?” she asked gingerly.
“I dunno. Haven’t you seen any strange people there?” Champa asked. Then she leaned over said in a low voice, “I mean any strangers or suspicious people? Anything unusual…”
“They bought an oven to bake cakes a couple of weeks ago,” Sabina said thoughtfully.
“Everybody knows they bought an oven,” replied an irritated Champa. “That man has even started selling the cakes baked by his wife. What I mean is if you’ve seen strange people visiting them.” Lowering her voice to a whisper, Champa dropped her bombshell. “I heard Jamshed Miah is running an illegal business.”
Sabina gulped. “What illegal business?”
“If I knew what business, I wouldn’t ask you, would I? You’re such a simpleton!”
Sabina shook her head as she had no information to share. Champa continued, “I always say that our Sabina is too good. But the world isn’t for the likes of you. Those two might be dealing in drugs, for all you know!”
By this time, they had reached Sabina’s doorstep, so she bade Champa a hasty farewell and rushed into her house. Champa knocked on the door of another neighbor and Sabina heaved a sigh of relief.
Jamshed and Marjina had been living in Lane No. 5 for nearly two years now, ever since Shafia Khatun’s husband Harun Mridha died in a road accident. When Harun Mridha was alive, the neighbors would hear him and his wife quarrel all the time. Many times, Shafia had sewn up the sleeves of her husband’s nightshirts while trying to mend the tears. He complained about her lack of cooking skills to anybody willing to listen. She was also miserly and refused to keep a cook, despite her husband’s insistence. “Why spend unnecessarily when I can do it myself?” she asked. “All you care for is food. Eating less is better for health, you know?” Sabina and other neighbors had tried to convince her that life would be easier if she had a helping hand. But the stubborn old woman would not listen.
Neither of her two sons were around at the time of their father’s accident. Her elder son Hamid had married the only daughter of a well-to-do fish merchant in the port city of Khulna and lived there with his in-laws. He did return to Phultoli to arrange his father’s funeral. But he didn’t bring his wife, and didn’t offer to stay with his mother, or to take her with him. Sabina was privy to their conversation as she was helping Shafia with housekeeping that day. She was in the veranda putting jars of pickles in the sun when she heard the mother and son talking.
“Son, what are you saying?” The old woman sounded flabbergasted. “How am I supposed to live by myself? I am rheumatic and can barely see at night. What if somebody robs and kills me?” She paused, and then mumbled, “And your father just passed away. What will our neighbors say?”
Shafia Khatun was in her late sixties and suffered from arthritis and night blindness. Sabina had once seen her standing at the gate of her house in the evening calling out to a stranger, “Is that you, Lailu? Could you get me a bottle of soybean oil from the grocer?” Lailu was a teenage girl known in Phultoli for her colorful clothes. But the stranger was actually a greying old man who scowled and barked, “What’s wrong with you, woman? Can’t you tell a man from a girl?”
Everybody knew that it was not a good idea to leave Shafia Khatun on her own. But Sabina could see that Hamid wasn’t too concerned.
“What do you care about the neighbors?” he barked at his mother. “Keep a maidservant and you’ll be fine. Abba used to get a pension, didn’t he? I’m sure you have enough to get by.”
“Why would I depend on a maidservant when I have two sons and a daughter-in-law?” Shafia Khatun protested. “You should come and live with me!”
“Impossible!” said her son. “I can’t just shift my business because of you. I deal with fish – you understand? Do you think I can catch fish in the sewer behind your house?”
“Well, you could take me to live with you in Khulna!”
“Right!” Hamid said tightly. “The few times that my wife came to visit you, you made it clear that you don’t like her. You complain all the time.”
Throughout the next couple of days, Shafia Khatun tried her best to convince her wayward son that it was not a reputable thing for a man to live with his in-laws, especially when he had a homestead and an elderly mother. Hamid wouldn’t hear of it. He still depended on his father-in-law, and dared not antagonize either his wife or his in-laws. He cursed his absentee brother for dumping all filial responsibility on his shoulders. As Shafia Khatun’s closest neighbors, Sabina and her husband Aslam asked Hamid to reconsider his decision. Hamid only said that it was his mother who made things difficult, and there was nothing he could do. In the end, however, he softened a little and left her some money, promising to send more later.
As for the other son, Masud, nobody knew of his whereabouts. Sabina had never seen him despite living next door for years. Some people speculated that he was deeply in debt and left Phultoli for that reason. With no son to look after her, the widowed Shafia Khatun whimpered wretchedly to anyone who would listen. Initially, Sabina and a few other women took to bringing her food. But she turned out to be a finicky eater, and soon people started to say she should not be so tightfisted and keep a maidservant to cook for her.
Then one afternoon, a sturdy young man with a deep scar on his left cheek arrived with a slim woman in tow. They had several bags and two trunks with them. Shafia Khatun was seen laughing and crying while hugging them both. People had assumed that her younger son had finally come home with a wife. Soon, however, it turned out that the couple were Shafia Khatun’s distantly-related nephew Jamshed and his newly wedded wife Marjina. Jamshed had not been in touch in many years and reconnected only recently through another relative.
As soon as the newcomers arrived, Phultoli was abuzz with rumors. People were suspicious of their motives because nobody had seen or heard of them before. With the cut on his cheek and rugged build, Jamshed looked more like a thug than a regular person. He even had moustache like those mobsters one sees in Bollywood films. Someone predicted that it was only a matter of time before the old woman was dead of some mysterious disease and her house sold. Others wondered if she would sign over her property to her nephew. An elderly neighbor was heard saying, “I hope that younger son returns on time to save the house and his mother. Where is that boy?” Most people could not even remember what Masud looked like.
But as time passed, the rumors died down. Some months later, Jamshed opened a tea shop and Marjina turned out to be a very capable homemaker, helping out her husband and taking care of Shafia Khatun. She was nimble with her fingers and made embroidered pieces for sale. Every couple of months, a microbus with tinted windows came to collect the handicrafts made by Marjina. Jamshed was heard claiming proudly that his wife’s handiwork went off to some posh outlet in Gulshan. He also said that she only took special orders and her stuff sold at a hefty price. Some of the patrons at his tea shop had seen crisp notes exchanging hands and baskets of goods leaving the house.
Jamshed’s venture thrived too. Nobody could deny that his malai-tea made with frothy cream was the best in Phultoli. The tea was only 10 taka per cup and came with a free butter toast biscuit. He said that if he could save a little more, he would start serving lunch, too. Meanwhile, women flocked around Marjina to learn embroidery from her. She was kind enough to teach them a few stitches and they all had to admit that she was skilled at her craft and taught them ways to make money from home. They also agreed that even though Jamshed was tightfisted like his aunt, his wife was quite generous and even lent money to other women without interest.
In that hardscrabble community, jealousy was normal even though people also helped each other when needed. The men were either small shop owners or factory workers. The women were mostly housewives and their lives consisted of household chores, taking care of children, and gossiping about their neighbors. The denizens of Phultoli watched each other closely as they had nothing better to do, and it was difficult to keep secrets.
Sabina had gotten to know Marjina well over time, and she had a good opinion of both her and Jamshed. She shook her head as she recalled Champa’s insinuations about Jamshed being involved in something shady. She wondered how such an idea even occurred to anyone, and worried about where this might lead.
Yet, the urge to snoop was irresistible. The next morning, Sabina’s son Raju sat on the porch playing with his toy cars and trains. His mother had stationed him there to keep an eye on their illustrious neighbors. “Let me know what happens in that house, okay? But don’t let them catch you.”
The 10-year-old had little to do during the summer vacation and being assigned a task by his mother made him feel important. He pursued his job diligently.
Around noon, an excited Raju came running into his mother’s kitchen. “Ma, the silver microbus has come again to Shafia Nani’s house,” he reported eagerly. Sabina had just taken the pot of bubbling rice from the burner and was pouring out the starch. She tsked, “Bad timing, son. I have to get the lunch ready before your dad arrives. Why don’t you go back and keep watching?”
Raju nodded and returned to his station.
A few days later, Raju said, “Ma, Shafia Nani slipped in their yard when you went to the grocer. I saw Jamshed Uncle bringing the Compounder Uncle from the big drug store.” The local pharmacy also had a certified physician who came two days a week, but it was his assistant, the compounder, who mostly attended to the people of Phultoli.
That afternoon, Sabina paid a visit to see how the old woman was doing. Shafia Khatun was in pain and was sniffling. She sat on the stoop and grumbled.
“What a misfortune this is! Mana, are you sure I haven’t broken a bone?” Shafia asked her niece-in-law.
“No, Khala, you’ve twisted your ankle,” came Marjina’s reply. “Just rest. You’ll be fine in a few days.”
Sabina learned that Shafia Khala had slipped and fallen while taking out the laundry. She was obsessed with cleanliness and was always washing things. Even while Sabina was there, she asked if Marjina would place her near the tube-well so that she could wash her clothes from the previous day.
Marjina said quietly but firmly, “No, Khala. I’ll do the washing while you recover.”
“She’s a good one – that Mana,” Shafia confided in Sabina. “She must have been my daughter in another life. I wish my Hamid’s wife was like her. That wench sleeps till 10 in the morning and doesn’t even know how to cook. I’m sure she feeds raw fish to my boy and that’s why he has a vile temper. He doesn’t even call me. I tell you my son wasn’t like that. He was such a sweet boy!”
As Sabina was leaving, she heard the old woman say, “Mana, can you ask Jamshed to get some more of that ointment? I have used it up. Yes, yes, I know that measly compounder said to use it three times a day. He thinks we’re too poor to afford it. Come, be kind to this old soul. I’m old enough to be your mother…” Sabina did not hear Marjina’s reply. But Raju later informed his mother that Jamshed did bring a new jar of ointment in the evening and old woman was ecstatic with joy.
Soon Sabina discovered that other people were also keeping tabs on the family. When she went to hang out the day’s clothes on the rooftop terrace the next day, she saw her teenage neighbor Lipi bent over and looking intently at Shafia Khatun’s house from their rooftop garden. Seeing Sabina, she straightened up and smiled awkwardly. Sabina laughed and asked, “What are you up to, Lipi?”
The girl squirmed and said, “Didn’t you hear about Jamshed Bhai running an illegal business?”
“I did. Who did you hear it from?”
“Everybody’s talking about it. Ma has asked me to keep an eye on their house.”
Sabina laughed out loud. “We’ve been keeping an eye out, too,” she admitted sheepishly. “But so far, nothing seems out of the ordinary. Shafia Khala fell and hurt her ankle. And Jamshed apparently brought the biggest hilsa fish from bazar this week. They also got a small oven to bake cakes – but that’s old news.”
“Well, like my granny says, you can never tell who does what,” Lipi said with a knowing smile. “They surely are prospering – nobody else has an oven except the people who run the bakeries.”
Sabina shuffled uneasily. Her feelings about Marjina and Jamshed were complicated. While she liked them both, she was also jealous of Marjina who was not only good at household work, but also very pretty. The fact that Sabina could not find any fault with her was a fault greater than any other.
“By the way,” Lipi continued, “have you heard that Jamshed Bhai and Marjina Bhabi grew up in the same orphanage?”
Sabina nodded slowly. Marjina herself had confided in her some months ago when Sabina was learning stitches from her. Later Marjina had begged her not to divulge the information to anybody. Now it seemed that someone else had spilled the beans already.
“Quite a love story, wouldn’t you say?” Lipi asked with a smirk. “They have nothing to their names and hence they sought out Shafia Nani. They’re saving on house rent.”
Sabina said, “Well, Shafia Khala is quite a difficult person. It’s to Marjina’s credit that the old woman likes her so much.
“Right. But Marjina Bhabi seems too good to be true, you know,” said Lipi. “She takes such good care of that old woman who’s just an aunt by marriage! Dadi always compares my mother to Marjina as if nobody can be as good as her.”
Sabina looked at her young neighbor with annoyance. Lipi was only 17 and yet she spoke like an old matron. What would she do when she got married? Then a feeling of mortification overwhelmed Sabina. How was she herself any better? Marjina or Jamshed had never harmed her. On the contrary, they had always been helpful. How was she repaying that kindness? Sabina resolved that she would stop prying into their business. She thought of her husband Aslam, and how lucky she was to have a kind and thoughtful man. Aslam always stayed busy with his own work as an electrician, and urged Sabina to refrain from rumors and gossip.
So, Sabina was taken aback when a few evenings later, Aslam inquired about their neighbors.
“What’s going on at Shafia Khala’s house?” he asked while washing up after returning home one evening. “I just saw her son Hamid at the cigarette shop. He mentioned a rumor of some illegal business run by Jamshed.”
Sabina exclaimed, “What! He hasn’t visited his mother even once since his father died. What’s he worried about now?” She paused and added, “Illegal business indeed! It’s all cooked up by that vicious gossip of ours. If anybody’s shady around here, it’s her.”
“Champa Khala? Again?” Aslam shook his head and said, “That’s bad.” Sabina was about to ask what exactly Hamid told him when Aslam said, “But where’s my dinner? I’m famished.”
Sabina hurried to the kitchen and temporarily forgot about the neighbors.
Jamshed’s shop didn’t open the next day. Since it was a Friday, people didn’t think much of it. But after the Friday prayers that afternoon, Phultoli was abuzz with fresh rumors. Apparently, Hamid had gone to the mosque and mentioned to somebody that he was selling the house and taking his mother away.
Sabina picked up the details on the street. It seems Hamid’s father-in-law had ordered Hamid to bring his mother to Khulna. He said it was preposterous for an elderly widow to live on her own. Who knows if strangers might be taking advantage of her?
Later Aslam also reported Hamid’s misgivings. “There are all kinds of people around. What if Amma falls prey to some scammers?” Hamid had said to him.
Aslam dismissed the rumors and told him it was all manufactured by Champa. “I understand Jamshed has been good to Amma,” said Hamid mournfully. “But he’s only a distant cousin. It’s better if I take her to Khulna.” After some hesitation he added, “And you know, there’s the house. What if Amma ends up leaving it to them?”
“Where’s your brother Masud?” Aslam asked.
“That scumbag has run away to the Maldives. He works as a chef in some restaurant. It took a while for me to track him down. I wish he was here.”
Sabina went round-eyed when she heard all this from her husband. “A chef?” she exclaimed. “He can cook? We never heard of that.”
Aslam shrugged. “That’s what Hamid says. I’m sure we’ll hear more soon.”
Another day passed and finally Sabina decided to pay Shafia Khatun a visit. She ran into Lipi on the street and they went over together. Both the men were away and the elderly woman was taking an afternoon nap. Marjina replied to all of Sabina’s queries with downcast eyes. Yes, they would be going away soon. Hamid and his brother Masud had made the decision to sell the house.
“Is Shafia Khala okay with moving to Khulna? I thought she and her daughter-in-law don’t get along?” asked Sabina.
“Hamid Bhai is her son,” replied Marjina. “People have been speaking ill of him for not looking after his widowed mother. So, I guess it’s the right thing to do. Jamshed and I are only outsiders.” After a pause, she added, “Hamid Bhai is finally doing what a son should do.”
“Wouldn’t you miss her, Marjina?” Sabina asked.
Marjina’s lips trembled a little and she looked away.
Lipi, who had been listening intently, kept quiet all through. But once they were out of earshot, she said to Sabina, “They must have saved a lot, don’t you think? I’m sure they won’t have any problem settling elsewhere.”
Sabina did not deign to reply.
The following Saturday, a pick-up truck stopped at Phultoli Lane No. 5. Aslam and another neighbor helped Jamshed load their belongings into the truck. But Sabina’s heart was heavy. Jamshed and Marjina were moving to the outskirts of Dhaka where it would be cheaper to live. It was unlikely that she would run into them again. It was even more unlikely that Shafia Khala would see them again since she would be in Khulna.
Sabina stood near the gate recalling the previous afternoon when she had seen the elderly woman standing in her backyard. She looked more tired than usual. There was a forlorn look in her eyes that went straight to Sabina’s heart. Sabina was about to call out to her when Marjina appeared. As Shafia Khatun slowly turned to follow her indoors, she suddenly clasped Marjina in a tight embrace. There was no blood relation between the two and neither had any claim on the other. In the dying light of the day, Sabina watched Shafia’s body spasm and her mouth curve in a silent grimace.