Ponds Women's Day and Sarala Kisku's Noon
Audity Falguni, born on 18 February 1974, obtained her Honors and Masters degrees from the Faculty of Law at Dhaka University. She has authored 17 books including six short story collections, two collections of poems, one collection of essays, three research books and five translation works from English to Bengali. Her latest short-story collection "Opaurusheya 1971" won the Prothom Alo Best Book Award 2011 in creative writing category.
No sooner had Sarala Kisku finished her morning shift at work in the courtyard of the rice husking factory, she began walking fast towards the Mithapukur Highway point where buses to Rangpur, Dhaka and other large cities of the country meet. Her ebony black hands and black, fleshy body would remind you of a healthy female buffalo. The saree wrapped over her body smells of paddy. Over the hours she has to boil and sundry the paddy. Earlier in her life she used to do this stuff in her parental or in-laws' homes. Now she has to sundry and husk rice in the huge courtyard of “Asif Brothers' Rice Husking Mill”. This noon she received her weekly salary. So, she walked a bit faster!
Dawn breaks out and sets the sun ablaze during the scorching days of late spring. Generally this rice husking mill commences its morning shift by 8:00am in the months between September and December. But the morning shift is moved to 7:00 am as soon as March arrives. Lunch break during the summer session begins at 1:00 pm. But today Sarala will not have her lunch. If she stops for the luxury of having lunch, how can she catch the bus towards Rangpur? It takes a total of 't-h-i-r-t-y minutes' to reach Rangpur New Market from Mithapukur and needs another thirty minutes to get back to Mithapukur. Today Sarala will go to Rangpur New Market where there are several shops with hundreds of soaps, shampoos, snows and creams. You simply can't count those! And there are scores of billboards scattered all over the Rangpur town with large photographs of all beautiful white women! Even their legs and thighs are as white as snow, let alone their faces and hands! The tallest billboard before the Rangpur New Market says:
PONDS VANISHING CREAM greets you on Women's Day!
Only three weeks' use will enable you to possess a lighter, fairer and brighter skin-
Be fairer, fresher and brighter everyday!
PONDS = Women's Empowerment!!
God, what a promise! Yep, has Sarala not studied in the Norwegian Christian Mission School for the Santal indigenous children till class seven? This is why she can read all the Bengali alphabets. But can a black woman… an ebony black woman like her… be snow-white in only three weeks? But look at the photograph on the billboard! The dark woman in a pink salwar-kameez just begins applying ponds on her face and then turns out to be as fair as a European lady! As fair as those white women of the Norwegian Christian Mission! Can Sarala really be that fair? Hey Sarala… walk… walk a bit faster to catch up with the bus! Won't you buy ponds? Don't you wish to be fair skinned? Oh, you missed today's lunch. Both mother and mother-in-law will be unhappy if they come to know about you missing meals since you are four months pregnant. But what can she do? She has dreamt to be snow white since her very childhood! Otherwise why should she work for two successive shifts in the mill? Her husband has been sitting idle at home for the past 3 months, ever since he was laid-off from the Rangpur Sugar Mill. Men take up drinking if they sit idle. Her husband now drinks round the clock. Sarala has two kids. One is four years old and the other is one; the in-laws also live with them. She has to manage at least two days' meal for the six people in their small hut. After meeting up all these expenses… oh, is not she a woman? Does she not have a wish to spend a little on clothes and cosmetics? She's been saving every penny of her salary for the past four months from working two shifts and finally could have managed to catch the bus towards Rangpur! She will return back to Mithapukur as soon as her one hour lunch break is over and begins her tasks of boiling and husking paddy again in the courtyard of “Asif Brothers' Rick Husking Mill.” She will work again from 2pm to 8pm. Her village is the Jayrampur village of Pairaband Union at Mithapukur Upazilla. Just a 30 minute ride on van rickshaw from her mill! Mother-in-law is kind enough to complete the cooking as soon as Sarala reaches home. Returning home she will have a thorough splash of water over her whole face… just like those white fairies in the advertisement… on TV and the billboards… then she will apply ponds all over her face and hands just like those women in billboards… and finally she will fall asleep.
“HEY! RANGPUR – RANGPUR NEW MARKET – NEW MARKET!” Yells the bus conductor as he violently slaps the gate of the bus. Sarala tries to manage herself along with her four months' pregnant belly amidst men of different ages, features and dresses and tries to step down. Her head swings a little. As it did when she used to ride the merry-go-round at charak festival before they were christened. Very simple! She has not taken her lunch after four hours' work at the rice mill and also happens to be carrying another life in her womb. So what? First she needs to buy ponds cream. Look… there are hundreds of glossy lipsticks, nail polishes, skin whitening creams, powders and coals on the glass window of a large shop… to which Sarala feels magnetized. But why are the salesmen at the shops laughing at her? Why? Has not she handed over three fifty taka notes to them? Or are those salesmen thinking that ebony black Sarala can never be fair? Oh, what a small container of cream! And it cost her 150 taka! The larger one costs you 500 taka! Yes, Sarala knows also arithmetic. She mastered all that at her school. But can she really become white in just 21 days? Can she ever be as fair as those memsahibs in the Norwegian Christian Mission? Like the Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ? Sarala used to offer puja to the deity of Kali at her early childhood. But can the Goddess Kali ever be fair as the Goddess Durga or Mother Mary?
Before they were converted to Christianity, Sarala's parents used to observe the very Harh religion of the Santals; they also used to go to the Hindu festivals to celebrate. They used to offer homage at the alters of Santal Gods and Goddesses like Marang Buru, Pilchu Harh and Pilchu Burhi. They also used to visit the Hindu temples but the Brahmin priest never allowed them to climb the temple stairs. So they had to offer their devotion and watch the Gods and Goddesses from a distance. The fair Goddess Durga and her four fair children… Ganesha, Luxmi, Kartika and Swaraswati! But the year when a severe drought attacked their locality… the paddy and sugarcane fields yielded no harvest and the Santals had some problems with the Dikus (Hindus) as well as the Muslims over their land titles. Bengalis grabbed a vast amount of the Santal land. Sarala's father had to go to the city market to sell her mother's silver ornaments. One fine morning Jogen Kisku, Sarala's father, suddenly called all of them, sighed a deep sigh and then took Sarala, her mom and her two older brothers to the Norwegian Christian Mission. All of them suddenly got an `English' name! Her father Jogen Kisku became Jogen Joseph Kisku and mother Amala became Amala Margaret Kisku. The two older brothers Sunil and Anil became Sunil Richard and Anil David Kisku. Sarala came to know about their new God in the mission… the white Mary and her white and blue-eyed son Jesus Christ! Hey Marang Buru… no… Jesus Christ! Make me a little white! What does that billboard say? Yes, you need to apply the cream just three times a day to be fair… oh no! this coal black skin does not become fair! Coal cannot be washed and whitened… Sarala's brother Anil David Kisku died in the Bara Pukuria coal mine in a sudden underground landslide. The coal black Santal died while fetching coals in the mine. Hey Sarala, why are you crying? What is bringing out those tears? Anil is quite okay in the heavens, is he not? God is supposed to take good care of him!
“Hey! Rangpur!- Mithapukur!- Pairaband!” The bus conductor yells at the top of his voice. Once again Sarala feels like her head is swinging while standing on the bus handle amidst the crowd. Will she have a son now after two daughters in a row? No, that son will never be as white and fair like Jesus Christ, the son of Mother Mary. Neither will he be as fair as Kartika, the son of Goddess Durga. Will Sarala remain coal black for the rest of her life despite using hundreds of containers of cream? What will happen to her? She is four months' pregnant now. She will not be able to walk properly after six or eight months. Will she still have a job? She will probably have to quit the job then. Her husband cannot manage earning a wage every day. And what of the huge amount of money she spent today buying a cream? Hey… you are even worse than a harlot, Sarala!
“Hey! Rangpur! – Mithapukur! – Pairaband!”
The ponds vanishing cream container rests between Sarala's breasts under her blouse.
Translated by the Author
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