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     Volume 4 Issue 44 | April 29, 2005 |

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A Question of Answers


The thought pops into her mind randomly, throughout any given day, any given situation. Like a mosquito that buzzes in the ear when one is trying to sleep.

Every time she tries to soothe her mind, her heart, her soul, the thought pops in and disrupts the peace.

"How did she come to this?"

How was it possible someone like her, of all people, could be stuck in such an untenable situation? With no way out. Only a long series of days. Bad days or worse days. Never quite a 'good day'.

In her twenties, Fatima had all the answers. She knew what she wanted out of life. She studied hard to get the scholarship abroad for higher studies. She fought the brain-drain current and swam back to her Bay of Bengal shores. She smiled, cajoled and clawed her way through the Old-Boys' Network and went into business. Nobody thought she would make it. But she did.

Despite all the silent hostility, she made a name for herself in the RMG sector. Her factory was always fully booked. She didn't have a Pajero but her workers were happy. The work was challenging, fulfilling. It paid her bills comfortably! At the same time, she felt like a contributing member of the society.

Oh yes, she had all the answers.
What Fatima didn't realize then, in her twenties, was that she didn't know all the questions…
Somewhere along the way, Fatima met the man of her dreams Mahir . They had a short courtship period and got married within a year of meeting.

"What is there to think about anyway?" she thought. "He's tall, dark and handsome. He's got an MBA from a prestigious university. He lived abroad for a few years so he's obviously westernized."

True, he had a short temper.
True, he tended to be a little controlling.

But then, no man was perfect. And her mother had always told her that marriage was a compromise. So with her love, he would soften, he would change.

After all, there was nothing Fatima couldn't do if she set her heart to it.

She was Fatima, the trendsetter.
To paraphrase her favourite TV show "Star-Trek", she was the woman who went 'where no one else has gone before'. An "Enterprise" in herself.

It wasn't until later that she realized that instead of being an "Enterprise", she would have been better off as a "Metamorph". One of those aliens who assessed a new situation and immediately adapted itself accordingly. So the alien had no distinctive characteristic…except to be 'indistinctive'.

Within a year into the marriage, things started going downhill.

Mahir started cribbing about her working hours. Which she found decidedly odd because he knew she had long working hours right from their courtship days.

His short temper showed no signs of improving. If anything, he got worse.

He behaved not so much as a husband (or at least her definition of a husband) but more like a dictator. He insisted on having everything vetted by him before she could do anything. Even something as mundane as what she would wear to a dinner invite. She could not go out without his permission. She was forbidden to meet some of her old friends because he didn't like them.

"What happened to the liberalized man?" she wondered. "Where has this cave-man come from?" she pondered.

Every time she tried to talk about it, Mahir would rant about how 'spoilt' she was. "This is the way of the world, Fatima" he would tell her contemptuously. "This is how all marriages work. It's part of our Bangali culture, Fatima. Your mother, my mother everyone has played this role. Get real!"

"Don't tell me what our mothers did, Mahir. You yourself told me you never wanted a doormat of a wife like your mother!" she would argue back.

But arguments only led to…more arguments. Which led to hurtful, hateful comments. Which led to days of passive aggressive actions.

After a while, it got easier to simply stay quiet. It got simpler to just fall in with his wishes. At least there was peace in the house.

"Or would it be more accurate to call it 'silence'?" she wondered. "Where does 'compromise' end and 'self-annihilation' start?" she pondered.

Fatima confided in friends about her marital problems. But found no solace there. Either a friend would offer empty comfort "It'll be okay. Hang in there." Or a friend would tell her all marriages were like this. According to one friend, 99% of marriages were shams anyway. Nobody was as happy as they seemed to be. The thing to do, said one, was to have a baby. That would keep her happy.

Into her second year of marriage, Fatima gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Mahir was over the moon. "The family name will go on!" he exclaimed proudly. Fatima watched him holding the baby and prayed this was the beginning of a new chapter. And for a while, it was.

Mahir would come home early to spend time with their baby Abrar. He would buy 'boy toys' like a football or a cricket bat and show them to the baby excitedly. The baby would gurgle back with delight.

But after a few minutes of playing, Mahir would want Fatima to cater to his needs. It didn't matter even if she was feeding Abrar, Mahir made it very clear that he had to be 'first priority'.

He would want to go out for late night dinner parties but Fatima did not. End of a long day of single-handedly taking care of the baby, she had neither the energy nor the inclination. So Mahir would storm off on his own.

Or, he would invite friends over for a night of 'adda' and expect Fatima to be the perfect hostess. In her kitchen, with an aching back and a heavy heart, Fatima would refill the ice bucket. Make some more parathas or piyajus. Pour some more cashews into the bowl. Abrar was truly the joy of her life but, sadly, his father had become the bane of her existence.

What amazed her most was that Mahir was such the charmer and perfect gentleman to all, yet he was cruel and mean to her. When she mentioned this once, he said "Why should I have to pretend with you? I shouldn't have to make an effort with my life partner, should I?!"

"I know 'Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus', but aren't we supposed to be living in one universe, nevertheless?" she wondered. "Or is it that the universe is so vast that we should be satisfied simply drifting along in our own paths?" she pondered.

So drift along they did.
Fatima and Mahir.
A year rolled in and a year rolled out.
Their marital status on application forms read " married" but that's all it was. A piece of paper, officiating a whole lot of 'nothingness'. There was complete lack of communication. There were no shared activities. There were no happy moments together as a family.

Once or twice Fatima threatened to leave Mahir if he didn't make an effort to 'work on their marriage'. Mahir categorically told her she could leave but he would never let her take Abrar. Fatima knew enough about the judicial system to know it was not an empty threat. And so they drifted…

Another morning has dawned today.
Abrar is hurriedly getting ready for school. Anything to get away from his unhappy home. Fatima watches her son scramble into the school bus and realizes that a day will come when, as an adult, Abrar will leave this home and never return. But till then, at least she had him to ease her loneliness.

She turns from the bedroom window and sees her husband still snoring under the covers. He'll wake up around 10:00; have a leisurely shower and breakfast. Then amble over to his office at 11:00. After which, Fatima will finally go to her factory. Thank God for her work, at least. She had to juggle the hours between Abrar's school time and Mahir's demands, but at least she had some space of her own.

Fatima has long since stopped confiding in her friends.
"Why do you complain?!" one asked her. "At least, Mahir doesn't beat you or cheat on you. Unlike my hubby. So he's bad tempered and demanding. Most men are like that!"

"Why do you complain?!" demanded another friend. "At least you have Abrar. I'm stuck in an unhappy marriage and I don't even have a child! But I can't leave my hubby because I'm not financially independent."

"Since when did marriages mount to a list of 'at leasts'?" she wonders. "Why are we expected to…well, not have expectations?" she ponders.

In mathematics, Fatima had learned sums which were dependent on the 'least common denominator'. But in her life, everything was falling apart because of the 'at least' common denominator phenomenon. Nothing added up.

Treading into her forties, Fatima had only questions. She had all these questions but nowhere to go for the answers. She thought she knew what she wanted out of life. But the real question was: 'What did life want out of her?'


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