The Catch Phrase
Miftahul Jannat Chowdhury
Illustration: Sadatuddin Ahmed Amil
It was a chilly night with drizzling rain outside. The cold, light breeze of pre-winter swayed the old, moth eaten lace curtains of a small window on the top most floor of an apartment building. Beside the window sat a small girl in the dimly lit room. By the glimpse of it, it appeared like a servant's room, and the worn out furniture in it, though well maintained, had certainly seen better days.
The girl wore one of the strangest looking outfits a lot of us normally wouldn't want our children to wear. In fact, the clothes she wore were a bit too shabby for most of our taste. Over the frayed pink frock she had had a ragged, gray, oversized sweater, the neck of which slightly draped down from both her shoulders, perhaps because she was 2-3 times smaller than its size. What looked like a pair of extremely dirty, cream coloured rags that wrapped her feet, were actually a pair of old socks with her toenails sticking out. Her fluffy curly hair, now greased with oil, was tied in two tight braids, probably an attempt to tame them. Leaning on the foot of the bed, the girl sat on floor, hovering on something she held in her lap. The rain drizzled harder and a gush of icy wind whipped the lace curtains that hung innocently on the window. The thing this girl held delicately on her lap now looked like a thin, frail book, for the wind had deliberately managed to shuffle a few pages on it. The girl's brows furrowed in deep concentration as she resumed reading after turning those pages back to where she was reading from.
“Aliya!” screeched a shrill voice from the dining room, almost making her jump up.
The little girl named Aliya groaned.
“Aliya! It is no time to sleep I have guests to attend!”
“In a minute!” she cried.
Before getting up, she pushed the book under the bed, carefully hiding it from plain view. She was not allowed to read while she had so much work to do. She crossed the room and strode hurriedly to see why she was needed.
On a comfortable chair beside a lavishly handsome dining table, sat khalamma accompanied by two other ladies of her age from next door.
Khalamma was an elderly lady in her late 60s. She had a stern face that gave everyone a first impression that she was not someone you would want to mess with. Deep down under her uptight mask, everyone knew that there was no other kinder woman who was as soft as mellow and sensitive as she was. All her children were abroad, and she lived alone. Although she was not related to Aliya, it was khalamma who brought her home when her parents died while they were journeying and the ferry carrying them capsised in river Meghna due to a storm last year.
“Why were you sleeping at this hour?” snapped khalamma.
Aliya muttered something that sounded like “miniminimini…''
“Make me some ginger tea and some with milk for the ladies… This sore throat is killing me...” croaked khalamma in a complaining tone.
Aliya lit up the stove, filled a kettle with water, and put it on to boil. A swooshing sound of rain accompanied the noise of the television that appeared from the other room. She heard the ladies giggling about something now, while making tea absent mindedly, still occupied with some thoughts about that book… and of course, her school, back in the village. She missed everything back home. Her familiar school building, the bell that rang every period, the lawn and their playground painted in vivid green and surrounded by mango, grapefruit, and palm trees. She couldn't decide what she missed the most, the toothless grin of her best friend, Moni, or the cheap yet delicious kulfi she slurped every afternoon while arriving home from school. Thinking about her parents was painful, so she changed her thoughts abruptly whenever that topic came to her mind.
Here in this small town, she was not allowed to go to school by khalamma, and yet, served this family as a maid servant. If Aliya ever expressed her eagerness to join school, khalamma would cite in a panicky voice that it wasn't safe for a girl of her age to walk to school every evening in this hell pit of a town. For the cases of eve teasing were increasing at an exponential rate these days. She would also flinch at the idea of walking Aliya to school, groaning loudly and blaming her arthritis and senility. However, she did buy Aliya stacks of second hand books assorted with children's stories, but forbade her to read anything while she was required to work in the kitchen.
This didn't bother Aliya that much. At times she would feel terrible for not learning so many things unlike her friends, who still went to school back in the village. Yet she couldn't bring herself to phrase this problem to khalamma, and the idea of demanding so many things seemed very stupid to her. But then, perhaps it wasn't so surprising after all, as it was because of khalamma that Aliya got to read as many books she wanted. If it hadn't been for khalamma, Aliya would not have had a safe, warm and comfortable bed to sleep in at night. If it hadn't been for khalamma, Aliya would have ended up in that grotesque orphanage after her parents' death.
It seemed like the ladies were not paying any attention to the news in the television at all, and was more occupied in gossiping about Mrs. Rahela who lived on the third floor of this building. Someone muttered something, and the room exploded with laughter. Aliya served tea and sneaked right back to her room, and sat down on the floor. She took out the last book she was reading from under the bed, and flipped it open. From the other room, the news guy kept babbling something about the MDG and the ensuring of basic primary education to all children around the globe. Brows furrowed in deep concentration, Aliya set aside reading, not knowing what she was being deprived of, not knowing that she would jump up by the shrill of khalamma's voice asking for fried samosa after ten minutes, not knowing what her future would be if anything happened to good old khalamma after a few years, leaving her stranded, illiterate, and nothing more than an orphan once again.
(The author is an undergraduate student of the Department of Media and Communications, Independent University, Bangladesh.)
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