The Thirty-second Day
Munize M. Khasru
The first Azaan, out of a series of four, reverberates into the predawn air. Amina stirs sleepily under her quilt. Habitually, she waits to catch the sound of her husband coughing; clearing his throat; rustling the covers aside and getting up with a creak of the mattress springs. Instead, it is a cold thought that jolts her awake. The realisation he is no more. After forty-two years of marital life, Amina is not yet acclimatised to her month-old state of widowhood. She gets up from bed and wonders if she ever will be.
Amina has survived the first month of being alone. Every day has been a wrenching of opposites for her. She cannot sleep at night, yet, she does not feel like getting out of bed in the morning. She hopes each new day will ease the pain of absence, yet, dreads that it will make his presence harder to remember. Not in her world. But in the world around her. At sixty, Amina is no octogenarian. Nor is she the woe-be-gone type who spends all her free time bemoaning her Fate. Yet, everything in the present reminds her of her past with Firoz.
“Amma? Are you up yet?” Shahriar asks from the other side of the locked, bedroom door. Amina detects the traces of worry in his muffled voice.
“Yes, Babu,” she says assuringly. But she doesn't open the door. It is too early in the morning to put on her 'brave face'. “Go say your Fajr,” Amina gently tries to send her son back to his room. She gets up to do her wudu for the prayers.
Cupping water into her mouth, then nose, she thinks of how the domestic roles have changed. She splashes her face three times. And remembers there was a time when Firoz would be the one knocking on Shahriar's door at Fajr. She smiles, thinking of the rituals of father and son playing voice tag across the closed bedroom door…
“Come on, son.”
“Accha, accha. I'm up.”
Five minutes later. “Shahriar?”
“Yes, Baba?” a suspiciously sleepy voice would reply.
“Are you up?”
“…Hmm…” which would be interpreted as a 'yes' or a 'no' or a 'maybe'; depending on Firoz's mood.
With a shake of her head, Amina refocuses on her ablutions. Three times right arm. Three times left arm. In between fingers. Her gold wedding band glints in the water. She has not taken it off. Is she supposed to? She's not sure. Not that it matters nowadays. She had seen married women of her daughter's generation with bare fingers and bare wrists.
“Less is more,” she was told by one. Amina wasn't being judgmental. She simply hadn't known there could be an alternative. On her wedding day, her Nani had told her never to leave her wrists bare as it would bring bad luck to her husband. Did this young woman not know that?
Firoz used to love the clinking of her bangles. Sometimes he would deliberately run his fingers up and down her wrist just to hear it. She jingles them now. “Like a morning bell signaling 'Life' is in session for the day,” she thinks. She finishes washing and sits at her prayer mat.
After prayers, Amina gets ready to go for a walk. She meets her neighbour, Mrs. Hussain, down the road and they set off for the park. It is only two roads away but they feel safer together.
“Deen kal bhalo na,” their adult children have told them.
“Safety in numbers, Amma,” said her eldest son Shahzad, admonishing her over the long distance line.
When did their children grow up and think the parents were incapable of looking after themselves? She remembers the fuss they first made when Firoz and she started going on annual expeditions. It was a pact they had made on their 12th anniversary.
Feeling bounded by three children eleven years, five years and two months old then and the frailty of one income, they had been unable to do anything special that night. Perhaps it was post-natal depression, or the sorrow of youth slipping all too quickly away, but Amina had been particularly miserable that evening. Firoz had sensed it and vowed to her that after the children were grown up, the two of them would explore a new region every year.
They had begun to do so for the last few years. Then one fine morning, Firoz went for his weekly golf session, and never came back.
“It was a massive heart attack, Bhabi,” his friend had told her. “He bent to get his ball and never straightened up. Just crumpled to the ground, with the ball in his hand.”
Amina is not sure how to process this information. Was he in pain? What was he thinking at that very last moment? Why didn't she get a chance to say goodbye? Would it ease her pain today if she had?
“Apa?” Mrs Hussain's voice brings Amina out of her reverie. “Are you okay? Ki bhabchen?”
“Oh, na na. I'm fine,” Amina tries to instill a lightness in her tone she does not feel fully. “I was just thinking that Shahzad will be going back to New York soon.” Strange how quickly Amina has learnt to cover up her vulnerabilities. God Forgive me for my white lies. But I can't bear anyone pitying me.
“Yes,” Mrs Hussain sighs. “It's too bad he can't stay longer but at least he got chooti to come for his father's burial. And he stayed on a full month.”
“To attend to familial matters,” Amina tries to keep the mild bitterness out of her thought.
Two days ago, Shahzad had asked his mother what she intended to do 'now'.
“About what, Babu?” she responded.
“About this big old house. How will you live here without Baba?”
“Shahriar aache na. I'm not alone.”
“Yes, Amma. But Shahriar won't always be around. He will get married someday and they may not want to stay here. Or he may immigrate to another country. Who knows?”
“So what, Bhaiya?” Shaheen had piped in. “Ami aachi. I'll come over regularly like I have been doing.”
“That's neither here, nor there.” Shahzad had brushed off his younger sister. “Amma, you need to be practical. How will you manage? The maintenance. The security. These are issues you have to address. Ami boli Amma, give it to the real-estate developers. You can live in one of the apartments and have a monthly income from the rent of the other apartments.”
Amina had been so shocked at the suggestion that she had walked off without a word.
She tears up now at the recollection. It hurts her that Shahzad could be so nonchalant about demolishing a house he grew up in. A house where every nook and cranny has a tale of 'firsts' Shaheen's first birthday party, Shahriar's first step; and a tale of 'lasts' Shahzad's last American bound suitcase packed with aachar and bhuna gosht, Firoz's last post-lunch snooze on his favourite couch. The last time all five of them had dinner together. Khichuri, egg curry, brinjal fry, shorshay ilish. She can almost hear the accompanying laughter at the family dining table. There is nothing 'impractical' about wanting to preserve such a house. Amina resolves to tell her son so.
After her morning walk, Amina bathes and gets ready for the day. She looks in the mirror to make sure she is draping the crisp, white, cotton saree around her properly. She remembers the image of Firoz sitting by the window; his eyes twinkling at her over his half-moon reading glasses. How many times had she seen that reflection over the last forty-two years? Yet, she cannot remember the very last time. The starch in her saree makes a rustling noise. In her mind, she hears an echoic rustling of the newspaper. He would read his daily papers first the English one, then the Bangla while she would be getting ready. He would read out some amusing anecdote. Or she would ask him if he wanted fish for lunch today. “The peculiarity about habits is you never appreciate how special they are until you stop doing them,” she realises.
From the hallway she hears a dining chair being dragged. Even at forty-one, Shahzad has not learnt to pick up the chair quietly when sitting at the table. “The irksome habits, however, never go away,” she thinks wistfully.
“As-salaam Aleikum, Amma,” Shahzad greets her when she enters the dining room.
“Waleikum Salaam, Babu,” Amina responds. She does a quick check over the table to make sure it has been set properly. Toast for Shahzad; omelette for Shahriar; oatmeal for herself; and an extra setting for Shaheen, who will come after dropping her children at school. A perfectionist at heart, Amina finds comfort in having her household running impeccably. Concentrating on the nitty-gritty details of daily bazaar, menu setting, dusting, cleaning, doing hishab somewhat quells the deep-rooted howling in her soul. But she knows that all the noise in the world cannot supersede the echo of Firoz's presence. Just as at night, lying in bed, alone, staring at the ceiling, she knows all the silence in the world cannot erase the resonance of his existence.
Shahriar walks in and hugs his mother. Amina plants a kiss on his head. Shahzad looks at them, chewing his toast carefully. The two brothers nod at each other and then they are seated at the table, each intent on his or her breakfast. All of them are careful to avert their eyes from the empty chair at the head of the table.
“Amma, I have some last minute things to take care of today but we really need to talk before I go back to America tomorrow,” Shahzad says.
“Yes, I know. Tumi kaaj sheray asho, we'll talk then,” Amina answers.
Amina is thankful that she has gained a few more hours to compose her thoughts.
Shahzad had caught the next available flight from America when he heard of his father's death. Amina was comforted upon seeing him. In his usual poised manner, Shahzad took care of whatever practicalities were needed to be dealt with. Shahriar handled the inflow of condolences and visitors. Shaheen stood by her mother, second-guessing her every need before she even uttered it. The last one month had been bearable only because she had been blessed by good, caring children. Amina realises this.
She also realisses that Life has a way of going on. The condolences have dwindled down. Shahriar has to return to his home and American family. Shahriar will get more caught up in his work, his personal life. And Shaheen will have to focus on her own shongshar. 'That's the way it should be. That's the way it will be. That's the way it must be,” the thoughts spin in Amina's head. She knows it is only a matter of time before they settle down in her heart. She hopes she will not be tested too harshly until then.
It is almost Magrib time when Shahzad returns home. Amina and Shaheen are sitting in the front verandah, sorting through the mail. Shahzad walks in, all flustered from the heat. Or so, Amina thinks.
“Inefficiency and more inefficiency!” he says to no one in particular. He flops down on the chair opposite his mother.
“Ki hoyeche? What are you talking about?” Amina looks up from her task at hand.
“You will not believe how long it took for the lawyer to get Baba's documents in order. And he's supposed to be one of the better ones? Incredible!”
“Did you get it done?” Amina asks.
“So, what's the problem?”
“The problem, Amma, is how long it took. There's just no system here,” Shahzad says disgustedly.
“Or perhaps, there is a system and you just don't understand it,” Amina responds.
“No, really, Amma. I'm worried. If it takes so much running around to get such a mamoli thing done, how will you manage it all?”
“Don't worry. I will.” Amina reassures him.
“Anyway, I did some of the work for you and got the name of the best real-estate developer in town.”
“What for?” Amina asks. She feels a lump of dread rising in her throat, constricting her breath.
“Maney? We talked about this, Amma. Remember? About selling the house and…”
“No, Shahzad,” Amina interrupts mid-sentence. She cannot bear to hear him complete his thought. “You made a suggestion. That was all.”
“But surely, you agree with me?” Shahzad asks her incredulously. “Shaheen,” he turns to his sister, “You back me up on this, don't you?” It is more of a statement than a question.
“Bhaiya, I think we should let Amma decide.” Shaheen answers.
Amina knows it cannot be put off any longer. She takes a deep breath to steady herself. She turns to her son and says, “Shahzad, listen. I know you have the best intentions, but giving up this house is not an option I am even willing to consider.” There it's finally said. Her stomach flutters, waiting for the next moment.
“That's your emotion talking,” Shahzad tells her. The simple statement irks her parental sensibilities. It sends a surge of firmness through her, dislodging the lump in her throat. She swallows it down.
“Of course it is,” Amina says evenly. “That's the advantage of being my age. I can trust my emotions when making a decision. When your father was alive, he was the head of this family. But don't forget, I was the co-head. So now I have to take on the mantle. I shall make the final decisions on our family's behalf.” She pauses and looks at her two children. They remain silent.
“I will not give our home up to the developers.” Amina says with a note of finality in her voice.
After another moment of silence, Shahzad shrugs. “Okay, Amma, if that's how you feel…” he peters off.
Amina gets up and walks to her son. She strokes her hand over his head, then, rests it on his shoulder. Shahzad reaches and clasps her hand in his. They share a tentative smile. She can feel a wave of relief washing over her. It is the first time since Firoz's death that she has had to take a definitive, independent stance. She knows this is just the beginning.
“It's true what they say,” she reflects, “The first step is the most difficult one.” Amina straightens up and looks out at her garden. A soft breeze is ushering in the dusk. She tilts her face towards it.
“Thirty-two days and counting,” she thinks to herself.
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