<%-- Page Title--%> Fiction <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 108 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

June 6, 2003

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The Tamarind Tree II

Razia Khan

Like Lily, Roxana nursed a secret fear that male contact only brought anxiety and insecurity into a woman's life. The transient sensual gratification was not necessarily followed by genuine love and understanding. She remembered being more lonely and left out during her marriage than when she was in her father's house. The thought of Feroze, having lunch with some woman when she was bogged down by constant housework and baby care left a distaste in her soul. Lately Feroze talked very little -- spending hours on the phone -- going out on strange missions. Would he repeat the same pattern when he came back? Much made of, by his own and her relatives for his good looks and charm, only she knew what mortal pain he was capable of inflicting on her. Before knowing Feroze as a marriage partner, Roxana had no idea that a human being could be so heartless, abusive and unjust. Yet this was the person her son adored! Lily brought her tea asking, “Amma, what has made you so upset? What has Munir's father said?”
“He is coming.”
This ordinary statement sounded like an anguished shriek. Roxana took a few sips from the cup before collapsing on Lily's shoulders. “This man has hurt me so! He can be such a devil!”
“I know -- I know!” Lily stroked Roxana's back with her rough fingers. Lily's husband, a peon in a government-office had left her unprovided for when she was pregnant. The son, now on his feet did not care for her. She often said, “A woman has to fend for herself, no matter what. A son and a husband are just a decoration -- like this nose-top of mine.”
Roxana also concluded that a man's arms could be amorous, but they could not guarantee either physical or financial security. A man felt free to waste and squander his money but a woman concentrated on beautifying the home, saving little extras for exigencies. A man who is not around, cannot protect a woman from marauders. For the modern male going out for livelihood was not enough, he must enjoy the company of other males while a woman chose to give all her time to the home and children. She often gave up her relatives and close friends to be available to her married home. Thus isolation, insecurity and neglect by family members who pursued varied interests could lead a woman to the worst kind of deprivation.
Roxana had learnt her lesson, tried to live a full life without Feroze who never bothered to relieve her loneliness when her baby needed her all the time. She prepared for his advent gathering up courage. The Iraq war ended with an anti-climax. A well-structured state had been torn to pieces in the name of democracy. Now her oil was being rifled shamelessly. Munir said, “Now I understand what blood for oil means. My teacher said Saddam's welfare network was better than that of many countries. Good schools, hospitals. They've destroyed it all. I am ashamed of America!”
Roxana was taken aback by this strong statement. Munir's inveterate chauvinism had sustained a severe shock. His eyes were now more open, mind clearer. The interaction of two cultures, Bangla and American had caused some pain but it had given him a breadth of outlook that Roxana valued. That night she retired with an amorphous ache within her, a vague sense of foreboding. The impending advent of a male failed to reassure her of a stable future. She wondered what was then the role of a man in the self-supporting modern woman's life, merely reproductive? It was a horrible thought. As if to alternate her anxieties Feroze's phone call came at one in the morning.
“I am in a desperate hurry. Sorry about this untimely call. Before I hand over the house please tell me what I should bring -- I mean things of yours -- they have to be portable.”
He laughed. Roxana was in a huff. “You never asked before!”
“There was always a hope that we might be together again. That you might return!”
“Even when Anne was about?”
“Even then. I never stopped loving you. I know it is difficult to believe that.”
“Love? What does one do with that?” Roxana's voice was full of weariness. It frightened Feroze. He could never share her mental crisis. He rang off saying, “I know what to bring. I'll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Ah well.”
Left awake, Roxana faced the night feeling a terrible onslaught of loneliness. This was usually the effect left by Feroze on her psyche. She put on Stravinsky's 'Rites of Spring' on the recorder. The tumultuous music was cathartic. The sense of isolation melted away as Roxana's rejuvenated nerves were finally lulled back to sleep. Before slumber engulfed her totally, she smiled, “As long as there is great music -- I shall survive.”
The smile was still on her face when the first rays of the sun seeped through the venetian blinds. Lily's warm face, made glamorous by the cheap green stone of her nose-top loomed over her, like a landmark of permanence. Lily stirred the steaming bed-tea, pushing a crisp cream-cracker inside Roxana's palm. Roxana mumbled, “Lily you are an angel. What did I do to deserve you? I'm so hungry. This biscuit won't do.”
“Breakfast is ready. Omlette and parathas with bringal-bhaji!”
“Ah, heavenly news!”
“I am going to change the sheets before I serve breakfast.”
Roxana sipped the tea greedily and then without warning -- got hold of Lily's coarse palms, kissing with intense reverence.
“Have you gone mad?”
“My friend, never, ever leave me. Don't consider yourself a servant. You are my sister!”
Lily stared at Roxana with incredulous eyes and then blurted out, “Don't trust anyone with two legs -- that's what I am. Now get up and let me finish the bed.”
Deftly she changed the pillow-cases, the early sunlight playing on her homely features. Roxana told herself, “As long as I have my job, Lily and this apartment, I have nothing to fear. I'll treat Feroze like a valued guest. He can read and write, be a father to my son. He cannot harm me anymore. I am too strong -- no longer the vulnerable girl he married". Humming, she went for a bath. From the bathroom window, she saw the broken tub in the verandah -- a red lily had appeared on the straight stalk, still intact inside the tub. From the bathroom in the opposite apartment floated snatches of Farhan Alam's rendition of a morning raga. He was a trained classical singer. He would be taking the class after her with the third years. She was teaching Frost. He took Milton's Areopagitica. They both walked to work -- the Arts Building being so near. His wife could be seen pushing their two-month old baby in the pram, in the street beneath. It was a perfect morning. She was glad that she did not have to go back to Boston.
She decided to put the lily in a fresh tub in the evening. On her way to class she discovered the tree from which Munir had rifled the exotic red flowers to make his libation to his mother. It was in front of the late Modhu -- the canteen keeper's bronze-statue, built by his adoring sons. He and several members of his family were martyred by Pakistani soldiers, during 1971. Roxana thought of going to the Botany department to identify the flower. They were sure to come out with some unpronounceable Latin name. She was two minutes late -- the class-monitor was fixing the microphone for her. She took out the marker to write on the newly acquired immaculate white board.


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