from “Cloud-Capped Star”

by Tarfia Faizulah


A few days before Eid al-Adha, Keith invites me to go on a evening jaunt with him to the Ramna Kali Mandir. We walk through the marketplace, head towards the main road, and suddenly we are one of many bodies skeining the broken sidewalks past shops festive with preparations for Eid. The city vibrates with a hum of anticipation: children tugging their mother or father toward the latest Eid finery, gold and silver-embroidered fabric reflected in fluorescent-lit windows, a towering display of boxes of sweets. In front of the bus stop, an old man rests his elbow on his walking stick to anchor the arm holding out to us the hammered metal cup he asks us to fill with any manner of kindness.
*
For weeks now, Marufa’s friend Sheema has been staying with us: kicked out from the house whose mistress she supposedly betrayed, she has nowhere to go while she looks for a new job. For days, I catch mere glimpses of her round face and long, thick hair, the brief, shy glances she casts my way. Marufa sets lunch on the table, and Sheema stands off to the side, twisting her hands together. I fill my plate with rice and green beans, sauteed in oil and spiced with turmeric and cumin, take the first delicious bite, still standing. Marufa suddenly takes my arm and tugs me hard towards Sheema, whose wrist she grabs and turns over: Do you see, Apu, what she’s done? All three of us stare down at the jagged lines of recently cut skin for several silent, awful seconds before she snatches back the wrist she cannot uncut, hurries away. I go hot, then cold, continue to eat the spoonfuls of rice and beans Marufa urges on me.
*
Keith and I struggle our way onto the packed bus, and suddenly we are surging past the bustling roadside markets, a light breeze cool on our faces through the open windows. We swerve past rickshaws bearing cargo, massive clusters of empty plastic bottles or a pile of bamboo poles. Eager passengers run alongside the bus as it slows down, and the young thin man whose job it is to stand in the entrance grabs their arms, pulls them on, shouts at the driver to go ahead. We gain speed past cows and goats tied to streetlamps, men bartering both over them and the knives that are sharpened, the contact of metal against metal blossoming bright sparks into the night air. I have never seen the city this way before: elevated slightly above it, like a parent standing over a child. The moon fills the dust-polluted sky like a ripe, unsheathed lychee, and I turn my face towards it.
*
I pace the hallway for an hour. I make a mental list of people I can call to ask for advice, abandon it. What I would do in America: give her the number for a hotline, set up a meeting for her with a psychologist, try to talk to her parents. I realize, helplessly, that not a single one of these options are available here. Marufa comes, clears away the table, stares at me wordlessly. What is written on her face? Judgment? Concern? Scorn? Fear? What should I do? What do you want me to do? What can I do? I want to ask her. Because it is Eid, the superintendent of the building has already left to visit his family in another city, and it occurs to me that much of this, including Marufa telling me about it, might not have happened if he was still here. I call her over finally, and ask her to bring Sheema over. Yes, Apu, she says, and turns away those inscrutable gray eyes.
*
We get off the bus, stop at a long row of flower stalls hanging with thick garlands of bright orange marigolds, long strands of fragrant white blossoms. Keith buys one, and we walk towards the temple pause at a roadside book stall selling only books written or translated in Bangla. Nietsczhe, I make out slowly, my grasp on the Bangla alphabet still rusty. Sartre, Guerrilla Warfare by Che Guevara, the newest collection by local poet Mahadev Shaha, all displayed on strung up strands of coarse twine. Keith points out the buildings that make up Dhaka University, and a friend of his joins us, begins speaking to us immediately about revolution, protest, resistance. He leads us to a canteen, the moon shining through the filigreed windows carved into its whitewashed cement walls. All around us, groups of young men talking excitedly, knocking back the small glasses of tea Keith’s friend now urges into our hands. We follow his lead, quickly stir the condensed milk at the bottom in the dark amber tea with small, well-used metal spoons. The hot liquid glides down my throat, then we’re following him out. How thin his torso, his long, dark arms.
*
I lay out on the dining table a box of Q-Tips, hydrogen peroxide, bandages. A tube of antibiotic ointment. A bag of miniature Kit-Kats thrown into my suitcase at the last moment. I check my email. Wait. Pick up the phone to call a cousin for advice, put it back down. When I hear the front door open, I stand up quickly then sit back down. What do I do with my body? Does it matter? She sits down, offers up her wrist to me, her face lowered, hidden in the thick folds of her dark hair. If you want to talk to me about it, I say, you can. Silence. How are you feeling? I try again. I’m here, she says, Aachi, and I fall silent myself. Marufa watches me draw the hydrogen peroxide-tipped Q-Tip over the cuts, the liquid bubbling momentarily as I hold flat her open palm, hot to the touch. Here, I say, after the ointment has been dabbed, the bandage unpeeled from its packaging and pressed onto her wrist. When I place in her hand the small bag of chocolate, she begins thanking me. I’m too embarrassed to meet her eyes, and I continue to wonder if all of this is only to assuage my own guilt. When she bends down to touch my feet in salaam despite my protests, I’m so horrified that I back away abruptly, almost kick her in my hurry to throw the blood-tipped Q-Tips still clasped in my hand away.
*
We walk through the park past vendors pouring roasted peanuts into the flat triangles of newspaper that spring into cones in their agile hands. Keith slips off his sandals at the ornate iron gates of the temple, and I do the same, the white marble cool on the soles of my feet. The statue of Kali is backlit by fluorescent light, her stylized, kohled eyes made eerily piercing by the strange light, her lips garishly crimson. We pass several more makeshift displays, the lifesize figures smiling against backdrops of corrugated metal, before entering the religious leader’s home, a small lean-to filled with people sitting or standing in every available space. Come in, come in! Raju exclaims when he sees us, and procures two chairs for us.
*
I hear from Marufa that Sheema has left with her cousin to return to her parents’ village. The city begins emptying out further as Dhaka’s inhabitants begin leaving for their ancestral homes: the hushed morning I wake to the day before I’m slated to leave for Chittagong to visit my own family strangely unsettling. I open the suitcase, lay boxed sweets for my aunts and uncles in the bottom, begin folding salwaar kameez and saris into neat squares. Marufa comes and leans against the door frame to watch. But Apu, she says, coming to stand beside me, reaching out to finger the embroidered hem of a sari, won’t you miss me? Of course, I say, though I’m lying, just a little – I’m grateful to have an excuse to get away, to stop replaying that moment Marufa took my wrist, led me to Sheema and exposed hers. To stop feeling like a monster: how reluctant I am, yet how eager, to write all of it down.
*
After praising Keith’s interest in Bangladesh and willingness to learn Bangla, one of Raju’s aides immediately begins interrogating me: Your family is Bangladeshi but you grew up in America? What do you know of Bangladeshi culture? Do you know where the Bay of Bengal is? Can you name any Bangladeshi poets? How Bangladeshi, he continues suspiciously, can you be when you have grown up elsewhere? For years, I have been hoping for and dreading this moment: fraud, I wait for him to say. You’re a fraud. What, I ask him at some point, does it mean to be Bangladeshi? Eating rice and daal with your hand? Wearing a sari? Speaking Bangla? You were born and raised in America, right? the religious leader asks after listening to me field his aide’s questions. I nod yes, and he looks up at the ceiling thoughtfully, silent for a few more moments. You were born and raised in America, he repeats emphatically, but your blood, he continues, your roktho – is Bangladeshi. His aide falls silent, and the relief of being told, finally, what it is that I am leaves me breathless.
*
On the way to the airport, my cousins and I pass more cows tied to trees, lampposts, random stakes hammered into the ground. We pass between us stories of Eids past, and I tell them about struggling not to laugh out loud in my pilates class: inhale, the instructor kept commanding, exhale, as though none of us could hear the poor goat tied downstairs to a pole, bleating continuously. They laugh, and I laugh with them. We fall silent, and I think of the cut throats of goats, the blood that will both pool in and be washed away from the streets of Dhaka by the time I return from Chittagong. I imagine the knife lifting, the hand holding it – that brief, suspended moment when the skin is still intact, barely beginning to yield before it gives in, as it must, to the sharp blade pressed against it.


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