Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Volume 5, Issue 39, Tuesday October 7, 2008

 

 

fiction

Another mouth to feed

Moni was awakened by the laboured, soul-grating sound of her mother coughing. It wasn't so much as a cough as a rasping, rumbling, frame wracking paroxysm of pain. Poor food, combined with long hours of brick-breaking under the sun, enveloped by the fine red dust of the crushed bricks, which coated her dark brown skin, had weakened her body, laying it bare to the ravages of tuberculosis. Moni watched as her mother tossed and turned, trying to get comfortable, and wished she had a pillow to put under that scrawny head. The cold earth that formed the 'floor' of the little shack that was their home made for a very uncomfortable bed.

The coughing increased in intensity until the woman sat up, her thin lips stained an ominous red that couldn't be from betel leaf, for where would they get money for such a luxury? The sunken, bloodshot eyes regarded her with a mixture of hopelessness, pain, and bitterness, and Moni found herself hoping that her empty stomach wouldn't growl and add to her mother's suffering.

“Three weeks it's been since that man came, and there's no money in the house.”

'That man' referred to Moni's father, Rahim, and the 'house', was, of course, this fragile contraption of rusty corrugated iron, castaway bamboo poles and tattered tarpaulin that formed a crude structure barely larger than a telephone booth.

Another bout of coughing followed, and this time a few drops of blood escaped her lips and splashed down the front of her sari. She stared at them, transfixed, for a moment, then brought up her sickly gaze to regard her daughter again.

“There's no food left, is there?”
Moni cast her eyes down and shook her head.
“I haven't been able to leave the house for the last week. I doubt they'll pay me now. I'll have to wait till I get another commission. In the meantime, you'll have to do something.”

“You mean break bricks?”
“If that suits you, maharani! Break bricks, if they let you, or go begging again, or whatever it is that you do. Just get out of my sight!”
A coughing fit more violent than the rest rendered her speechless, and Moni made good her escape.

***

Rahim eased the rickshaw to a smooth stop in front of the posh Gulshan house. The young couple got off, laughing, and too proud to haggle in front of his girlfriend, the young man gave the rickshawallah a twenty taka note; a veritable windfall. As Rahim turned his vehicle around, he spotted them link hands again. The sight brought a smile to his lips. Love was such a wonderful thing to behold! He decided he had earned a good half-day's worth, and could afford to go home to lunch. Whistling a tune he'd heard at a tea-stall, he pedalled away, his dark skin glistening with sweat as he moved.

Rahim eased his rickshaw into the line of similar vehicles in the slum, hawked and spat, and then proceeded to untie and re-knot his lungi, completely oblivious to the little boy staring adoringly up at him. After all, the nut-brown brats and bastards were a too-common sight, not to be taken note of. They were too old to be loaned out to beggar-women, and too young to be of much use in anything else. What did catch his eye was the bevy of sari-clad women hovering near the tin shack that belonged to him and his wife Moyna. He hurried forward.

“Congratulations, Rahim”
“You must be so happy”
“When are you treating us?”

He looked from face to beaming face. Moyna was standing at the door, smiling coyly at him, biting the edge of her sari. He shook his head. “What are you all talking about?”

“Moyna is about to become a mother again.”

Rahim's face darkened. “Another mouth to feed? What is wrong with you, woman?” He turned on his heel and stomped off, all thoughts of lunch and romance forgotten. A shocked silence followed, and Moyna slowly crumpled into tears. One of her neighbours shook her head. 'Huh…as if he had nothing to do with it.”

Jalil watched as his father dragged the rickshaw out and pedalled off. The women crowded around his mother, like a flock of fowl, clucking and cooing their empty words of comfort. Rahim's words rang out in his years. Another mouth to feed…

“Not any more, baba…”

***

The brick-breakers were busy at work, raising clouds of red dust. The sun beat down on them, but, save the sweat that mixed with the dust to form red rivulets that stained their clothes, they seemed oblivious to the heat. Several of them were wheezing; a sure sign that they would soon end up like Moni's mother.

The supervisor looked the girl up and down, and remarked, “You're a little too young for this, but I need all the hands I can get, so if you're sure, I'll use you for half of what I gave your mother.” Glad that she was getting anything, she quickly accepted.

As she settled down to work, one of the breakers commented, “Aren't you Morjina's daughter?” Moni nodded, smiling.
“I thought so. Seen your father around lately? No? I didn't think so.”

There was a round of laughter that didn't sound very friendly to the little girl's ears.

“Rahim Rickshawallah doesn't stay. He flits from woman to woman like a bee from flower to flower”, volunteered a toothless woman. More titters.

“Oh, a regular poet!”
“Hear! Hear!”
“I hear he has a wife in the Sweeper's Colony”
“And another brat on the way…”

They went on, laughing and swapping anecdotes, never breaking the pace of their work. Their faces blurred as tears welled up in Moni's eyes. Suddenly the bitterness in her mother's face began to make sense to her. The thought reminded her of the woman wasting away in the shack by the lake. Blinking back her tears, she continued in her work. Her father might not be concerned about her dying mother, but she was.

Presently, she became aware of someone watching her. She looked up to see a boy staring at her with hatred in his eyes. From the look of the filth on his hands, she guessed he had been trawling through trash for bottles that could be recycled. He was very young; probably not much older than herself.

They silently regarded each other for a long moment; she with curiosity, he in anger. At length, he spoke.

“Is it true?”
“What?”
“Rahim Rickshawallah is your…father?”
“So what if he is?” She raised her chin defiantly.
“He's my father too!” He spat it out, as if it was her fault. Her shoulders drooped.

“He doesn't come to see us anymore…does he visit…” she began lamely, trying not to feel guilty, although she wasn't sure why she should.

“He lives with us!” the boy screeched.
“You live in the Sweeper's Colony? In a tin house?”

“Yes”, there was unmistakable pride in his voice, in response to the wistfulness in hers. Smugly, he inquired about her home. She told him. There was another pause.

“My mother is having another baby. When Abba heard, he was very angry.”

“My mother tells me he got angry when he heard about me.”
“Another mouth to feed?”

She shrugged “I guess. But my mother feeds me, not him. At least, she used to. She's very ill now.” Her eyes filled again.

“Oh…” he looked at her, and realised he wasn't angry any more. She sensed the change in attitude, and somehow it comforted her, though she couldn't explain it.

“I guess this makes you my brother.”
“It does?”
“Yes. We have the same father, right?”
“You're right. What's your name?”
“Moni. Yours?”
“Jalil.”

***

In a smelly, cramped cul-de-sac by the lake, a thin woman lay dying, her sari liberally splattered with blood. In a sturdy tin shack at the Colony, a young woman sobbed into her pillow, one hand curled protectively around her belly. Out in the streets, a rickshawallah pedalled furiously, trying to bury his anger and frustration in sheer physical labour. On a pavement near a construction site, a pair of urchins smiled at each other at what was the beginning of an unlikely friendship.

By Sabrina F Ahmad

 
 
 

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