Four years into her marriage, Lipi had her first real chance of becoming a mother. It was the village midwife Renubala who gave her the news, reminding her that motherhood at her age didn’t come easy. At her age? In her early twenties? Well, that’s a lot of years for a village girl growing up amid hardship and with a body as fragile as an earthen water pot. The news should have made her ecstatic; indeed, she should have been over the moon by now. But if anything, it made her worried. Why, you ask? Well, it was because her husband Gafur had told her that the child better be a boy. If it were a girl, he wouldn’t be able to support Lipi any more. Gafur, a construction worker, had gone to the Middle East some years ago to try his luck. He had somehow found a job in a desert strip that paid him well but didn’t allow him to visit home more than once a year, and that too, for a mere three weeks. On each of his last three visits, he had tried as hard as he could to give Lipi the gift of motherhood. “What is a married woman without a child,” he had told her, echoing his beloved mother, and his not-so-beloved father. But that gift had somehow eluded Lipi – until that auspicious spring day. Gafur’s grandson-craving parents had of course come to believe that it was their son who was not ready to be a father – not yet. “Why bring a child whose father would be nothing but an absence in his life?” he had told his parents, shielding Lipi from the stigma of barrenness. This time around he had not come home on a furlough but had been sent packing by his employers, forced to downsize their operation because of a global economic meltdown. Gafur was without a job and would be staying home for at least a year. So when Renubala broke the news that he was going to be a father, he told Lipi, “I have kept my part of the bargain. Now it’s all up to you.” Meaning, I gave you a child, now you must see to it that it’s a son. If you can’t, well, I can’t guarantee what will happen next.
Lipi agreed. She knew all too well. Ever since their marriage, Gafur’s father, Dulal Miah, had been obsessed with the thought of becoming a grandfather. “All I want is a boy who will carry the torch of my family,” he had told Gafur over and over again. He somehow had never taken to Lipi. He hated her pretty face, her long hair and her shiny cheeks. He suspected her to be a ‘fallen woman,’ the kind who runs away with the first man who happens to come along when the in-laws aren’t watching. He also held Lipi responsible for sending Gafur away from home, conveniently forgetting that Gafur had been working in the desert strip well before Dulal Miah was sorting out potential brides for his son. When Gafur was away in the Arab desert, which was most of the year, Dulal Miah took it on himself to keep an eye on Lipi the whole day, and a good part of the night as well, and particularly in the small hours when Lipi had to go out to relieve herself. He had forbidden her to go to the tatti – the loo, the bamboo fenced toilet that was tucked away at the far end of the family’s backyard – without first waking him up. While Lipi was inside the tatti, Dulal Miah stood guard a little distance away with a four battery torch. The place was nothing but a breeding ground for devils, he had learned from his revered father. Lipi found her visits to the tatti a real battle, on top of the umpteen other battles she was having to fight every day.
After Gafur’s untimely return, Dulal Miah had partially retreated from view. But the nature of Gafur’s return had created some additional problems. Coming back home with a pink slip was not the same thing as coming back on a sweet home leave. Dulal Miah had made the distinction quite clear. If Lipi gave birth to a daughter, he had told Gafur in no uncertain terms, mother and daughter would have to find food somewhere else. His booming voice was loud enough for Lipi to hear even if she were washing pots and pans in the pond some distance away. Gafur sighed. “Give me a son, Lipi darling,” he pleaded with his wife.
Lipi took Gafur’s hand into hers, and placed it on her swollen tummy. Her child was moving restlessly under her skin, giving her a fright. What is this child doing? – She wanted to know. Why is he kicking so, as if he wants to split my side and jump out into the world, much before his time? As if he were a tiny dinosaur, bursting out of an egg, determined to spread terror across the world?
The comparison with a dinosaur is of course ours, not Lipi’s. How can a village woman, who only saw the inside of a school building for a couple of weeks know anything about dinosaurs?
Gafur placed a gentle hand on Lipi’s tummy. Wow! Smooth and cool as a watermelon. But whoa! What was that? God, that really hurt. Hadn’t it been a full blown kick that had almost broke his fingers?
Gafur was ecstatic. “My darling Lipi,” he moaned, muttered, and then screamed. “It’s boy. Who else but a boy kicks with such power? It’s most certainly a boy.”
Gafur’s ecstasy smoothed all the wrinkles of worry on Lipi’s forehead. “O Allah,” she exclaimed, lifting her head heavenwards, “you’ve heard my prayers.” For a moment, she thought she could see the face of the child. A smaller, but much cuter version of Gafur, with no resemblance to that monster Dulal Miah.
Gafur, meanwhile, gave a huge shout of joy and began jumping up and down. The noise drew Dulal Miah to the scene. “What’s going on?” he asked, directing his beady eyes at Lipi.
“A boy,” Gafur said, his voice almost choked by emotion.
Dulal stole a glance at the exposed belly of Lipi which he thought was of the shape of Pradip Dhali’s drum, only much smoother. On an impulse he placed a hand on her belly, which Lipi had forgotten to cover up, having been carried away by Gafur’s delight. She felt Dulal Miah’s cold and dirty hand clutching the taut skin of her belly. Her eyes darkened and she felt like throwing up. Suddenly, Dulal Miah screamed, as if he had seen a ghost.
“What’s the matter, Dad?” Gafur exclaimed. “My hand, my hand, it’s broken. The bastard has shattered my old bones,” the old man shouted in pain.
The bastard in Lipi’s womb didn’t like the ugly, groping hand feeling for it. It threw the kick of a lifetime, with left Dulal Miah writhing in pain. His old bones, of course, were brittle, not hardy like those of his construction worker son.
Dulal Miah’s scream brought his wife, Lutfa Begum to the scene. You haven’t met Lutfa Begum, have you? Never mind. It’s our fault. But you haven’t missed much, we guarantee. You’ve seen hundreds of Lutfa Begums on the telly, thanks to the soap operas on Sony and Zee TV channels. You may even have a few of them amongst you, for all we know. The kind of mothers-in-law whose sole pleasure in life lies in grinding their daughters-in-law until nothing is left of them but a pile of pulverized mess.
Lipi had by then covered her belly, although the need to throw up remained strong. She was trying to get up and head for the pond when Lutfa Begum put her hand on her throbbing belly and shouted, “Who told you this is a boy? This is a girl, I tell you. A slut like her can’t be the mother of a boy.”
The boy or girl, whoever it was that had assumed the role of a kick boxer inside Lipi’s womb, clearly took strong objection at the word slut. It now sent another kick, this time at the wrist joint of Lutfa Begum’s left hand. The impact nearly broke her old bones. A construction worker’s mom doesn’t necessarily have strong bones!
Lutfa Begum had touched Lipi’s belly with her left hand as she never used her right hand for unclean purposes. Now she regretted her mistake. Her left wrist had once dislocated after she had fallen from a tree when she was a girl. It had taken a long time to heal. Now the unborn monster in the slut’s womb had snapped it along the old crack line. Lutfa Begum left the room holding her hand, screaming.
Lipi couldn’t believe what was happening. What was it that had sent both of her tormentors packing? A knight in shining armour? What a feat! She clutched her sari and sank into the bed, feeling all the happiness of a few minutes ago returning, redoubled. She lay on the bed, breathing easily, happily and alone, after what seemed like an eternity. The little thing inside her had got rid of the two sentinels that guarded her day and night, not allowing her a moment alone with herself.
She placed a hand on her tummy and cooed softly, “My little thing, my son, my knight in shining armour. How your mummy loves you!”
Her voice was soft and mellow, scarcely rising above the sound of bamboo leaves brushing against the window as a gust of wind played with them.
The unfortunate kick that cracked Lutfa Begum’s bone drove her crazy. She was furious at the unborn monster, the unclean woman was carrying. She had a gut feeling that the child was a boy – no girl could throw a kick that strong. She knew it only too well. Hadn’t she herself been kicked around when she was young, by just about everyone she could remember? Could she ever, ever kick back? Could she so much as raise a finger at her tormentors? Now, after all these years, during which she had steadied life’s ship, piloting it confidently, this scheming villain had appeared, a whorehouse reject, bent on complicating her life, and intent on bringing a brat into the world. The brat that nearly broke her wrist had reminded her that the days of her kicking Lipi around were going to be over soon.
A few more months! She knew how it would go. The village midwife Renubala would dig the screaming and writhing monster out of the woman’s womb, wrap it in a piece of kantha and bring it right to her. “It’s a grandson, Lutfa Apa,” she’d say, “Ask someone to call out the ajan.” Why, Lutfa Begum could even visualize Gafur jumping into the yard, singing out a comforting ajan, his voice trembling with gratitude. That moment, alas, would also bring an end to her lording over Lipi. That’s why Lutfa Begum kept repeating in a shrill voice, “I tell you it’s a girl. No bazaar woman could give birth to a son. Not certainly her. Shouldn’t we kick them out now, when there is still time? What? I say throw them out if you want to save our lives.” Lutfa Begum sounded like that old siren Dulal Miah used to blow when cyclones threatened to level the coast. That was a long time back when he worked as a Red Cross volunteer. Lutfa Begum somehow had the same wail, the same nagging insistence. Dulal Miah too had been hurt, although his pain was beginning to lessen. But he felt in his heart that the child was a boy. He certainly wouldn’t do what Lutfa Begum wanted him to. He would be more than happy to throw the bazaar woman out, but not the male child. He would rather wait till the baby and the bathwater were separated!
Gafur, for his part, smiled. He knew his mother, and knew how her voice would grow shriller and shriller until she choked. She would then be forced to fall silent, although her eyes would continue to show her anger and disgust. Gafur’s smile, so out of place in the aftermath of Lutfa Begum’s angry outburst, would have been enough for either of his parents to jump on him, especially since he was without a job. But he was saved by the little money he had set aside in a bank for his and his parents’ upkeep, which only he could cash. Gafur, like his father, was also convinced that he would have a son. He had genuinely warmed to Lipi, buying her small gifts – mostly delicacies like fruits and chocolates – but on the sly, fearing his parents’ displeasure. But Lutfa Begum’s hawk eyes duly registered Gafur’s small indulgences, fuelling her wrath. And as Gafur warmed up to Lipi, Lutfa Begum began to find newer and newer chores for her. Suddenly the milk cow needed to be bathed and the yard swept twice a day. Or a sari she had worn just once needed to be washed again. Who else but Lipi could do the chores, since Lutfa Begum’s wrist would take ages to heal, if at all? Let the woman work herself to death, Lutfa Begum thought, with undisguised glee. One never knew – a sudden pain in the underbelly, a sudden spasm stabbing the heart, and the child would be flushed out like a lump of stale flesh. If that happened, she swore, she wouldn’t be the one to mourn.
The slut was taking on airs. She was obviously puffed up by all the attention Gafur had been showering on her, and by the prospect of being the mother of a son. But Lutfa Begum knew how to cut her down to size. Give her more work. Difficult work. Backbreaking work – she told herself. That way lay freedom!
Lipi had a problem – and a really big one at that: she couldn’t stand up to anyone, no matter how serious the hurt they inflicted on her. Lutfa Begum was constantly at her back, taking her to task for offences real or imagined – mostly imagined. All Lipi could do when the two in-laws descended on her was to run away to the pond, and sit on the steps shedding tears. Even Gafur was exasperated by Lipi’s submissive nature. “Don’t come crying to me. Fight fire with fire, if you can,” he shouted. Lipi, for her part, preferred to play dead. When the going got tough, she had the pond to herself. But at night or when a storm blew, the pond became an impossible destination and she was left with no option but to steel herself and face the insults, even an occasional slap. After Gafur’s return, Lutfa Begum had restrained her hand, but not her tongue. And now, after Lutfa Begum’s wrist bone had snapped, Lipi was hearing the unspeakable words more than ever, as her daily chores took on back-breaking proportions.
Lutfa Begum had never gone to school, but no one could say she had no intelligence. Quite the contrary. Dulal Miah believed she could match any village politician in intelligence – or in cunning – which was all the same for him. One day she fell in the yard while crossing over to tend to her milk cow. The fall was mild – she broke nothing, but when she rose to her feet as if with much effort, she let out a scream. “O my poor leg,” she cried, “first my hand, and now my leg.” She wobbled and was about to fall again, but Lipi was nearby, ready to lend a hand. The old woman put all her weight on her, and demanded to be carried to her bed. Lipi had no way of saying no. And against Renubala’s strict orders, she lifted the old hag on her shoulders and headed for her bed.
So Lipi’s chores mounted. She was nothing more than a household donkey now. Why, wasn’t she big with a child? You might ask. But didn’t Lutfa Begum herself, or her mother before her, do the same – may be much more – when they were big with child? While being carried to her room after the fall, Lutfa Begum was hoping that her weight would be good enough to snap the girl. But it didn’t happen – some saint must have felt pity for her. Angry, Lutfa Begum began to curse her. ‘The monster you are carrying inside you, that little bitch, she will be your undoing, I tell you.’
“That bitch will run away with the first village idiot that comes her way, you’ll see. And who will save you then?”
But will you, rotting old hag that you are, survive till then?
“Are you talking to me? Do you dare to open your mouth?”
Silence. Which often came at the price of gold. Ask Lipi how much she paid for a moment of silence.
Gafur was of little help when his parents were around, which was most of the time. His father used to run a restaurant in a small town nearby. But a fire gutted down the restaurant, and badly burnt one of his legs. Ever since he had been forced to stay home. But once or twice a month he shuffled to the village bazaar where he owned two shops, to collect the rent or do minor repairs. The shops brought him good money, so Dulal Miah was not keen to find work again. With Lutfa confined to bed, he had renewed his watch on Lipi. For the poor girl, life was simply becoming unbearable. Her day began before sunrise, and ended well after Dulal Miah finished his supper.
The burden had become too much for Lipi. ‘When will this end?’ – she asked. ‘When will I find release from all the labour, my son?’ – she now addressed her unborn child. “I can’t stand it, my son. Why don’t you come and rescue me from this pit, like the knights in shining armours my cousin Mona told me about all those years ago? Any answer, my prince?”
Her prince started moving. She could feel his small limbs thrash against her womb, as if he was putting on his mail coat, and unsheathing his sword. Lipi gently stroked her belly and lay down on the bamboo mat on the verandah. And fell asleep.
It was a pretty evening, like the ones she had seen in Mona’s picture books all those years ago. Full of softness and the scent of unseen flowers. And the rustle of birds returning home.
Lutfa Begum was sitting on her prayer mat, head bowed. Dulal Miah had dragged himself to the mosque. Gafur had gone to the bazaar, and was having a good time with friends.
Lipi was sleeping on the mat. Darkness had descended like a soft quilt, but so had the mosquitoes. Their drone answered the dying notes of the departing cicada. A champa had bloomed somewhere in the throng of trees near the pond, spreading its unworldly scent. A night bird was announcing its arrival, cooing a few notes. Not the usual sad ones it had been singing even two days back. The bird’s notes were upbeat, as if the night was going to be special. Or, was the bird trying to wake Lipi up, as it sensed something?
Don’t ask. We are no bird specialists. We don’t even know if birds feel for expecting mothers. That’s something an ornithologist might be able to tell you.
A plump moon, emerging from the depths of the sky, was floating in liquid light, and had anchored itself above Lipi’s little yard. The moon shone whitish bright, as if washed in dew. It had lit up the tin-roofed cottage, the clutch of trees near the pond, the pond itself, and the puin clump over a bamboo scaffolding. A bird had arrived to awaken Lipi. She opened her eyes. She had one hand on her belly. The hand trembled. No, Lipi was not having a crying fit. Her hand shook because something – or somebody – had given it a push. Lipi knew: it was her little prince. She felt a tiny hand groping for her sari-end. Then another hand. And then a small body lifted itself out of her womb. The little figure that emerged took a few moments to balance itself. Then it jumped on to the mat, positioning itself near Lipi’s folded knees. Then it somersaulted. And before Lipi’s wonder-filled eyes could figure out what was happening, the little one was on the yard. A few paces of wobbly walk. Then it stood erect, and stamped its feet on the hard clay soil of the yard, just as a horse does, before taking off.
As Lipi kept gazing in disbelief, the little one began to grow taller. First the height of Lipi’s thighs, then her breasts, then her shoulder, finally standing towering over her, taller than she ever had been, even with the high-heeled shoes Gafur had bought for her after their marriage. Lipi lay supine on the mat, her eyes catching the trembling of a red anchal, and the fluttering of a red-bordered sari above the little one’s ankles. Lipi’s eyes traveled upward along the folds of the sari to the little one’s – little woman’s, she corrected herself – tummy, just where her belly button sat like a crown jewel. Then to a red blouse and two small, firm breasts over which she had draped her sari. And then to a smallish face, fresh, self-possessed… and beautiful, flushed with an intense smile. The little woman had a matching red tip on her forehead, but her straight, silky hair danced wildly in the wind, which she tried to bring under control with a firm hand. Lipi saw with amazement how her fingers shone in the dark, like fine champa blossoms. A fairy, certainly, Lipi thought, a pori from Mona’s story books. The pori gestured towards her to keep lying down, tucking her sari end around her slender waist. Then she got down to work. First she picked up the broom and swept the yard clean. Then she entered the kitchen. A minute later she emerged with two pitchers and headed for the tube-well.
Lipi closed her eyes. No. One shouldn’t dream such a dream. It’s painful, she said. Her dream was telling her that all these chores awaited her – this sweeping of the yard, and collecting drinking water. She decided to end her dream, but heard the pori calling her. “Ma, don’t get up. I’ve done everything there is to be done. Get some sleep now, while you can. I’ve lighted some dhoop, incense in a bowl – the smoke will keep the mosquitoes away.’
The pungent sweet smell of dhoop tickled Lutfa Begum’s nostrils. She shouted, “Who told you to waste my dhoop on yourself, bitch?”
Dhoop? What is she saying? Lipi thought. But she too smelled it, and saw whiffs of smoke rising from the dhoop bowl. The mosquitoes too seemed to have departed. God, what now? How could she explain herself? She got up, put out the dhoop, and entered Lutfa Begum’s room. But Lutfa Begum’s attention had been diverted to something else – to her neatly folded saris on the clothes horse, and the cleanly swept floor which shone in the dim lantern light. And who had lighted the lantern, for God’s sake? “When did you do all these, woman?” She asked, scarcely concealing her wonder.
Lutfa Begum liked to drink a cup of tea in the evening. Lipi ran to the kitchen to make her a cup, before she began hurling abuses at her which, between the evening prayer and supper, were unstoppable. But an even more amazing spectacle awaited her in the kitchen. The place smelled of freshly cooked food – khichuri, fried fish, brinjal and potato curry. My God! When did she cook all these?
Dulal Miah usually ate his supper in glum silence, as if the food was not fit for human consumption. But today he was in a pleasant mood. “Good cooking,” he said, “but where did you get these ingredients?”
“The brinjal is from the vegetable patch,” Lipi said, “and the fish is from the pond.”
“The one at Miah Bari.”
“You went to Miah Bari for the fish?”
“No Father. I bought it from Painna’s Ma the vendor.”
Dulal was happy. His son was now paying for the food. And this stupid girl was finally learning how to cook.
Time passed. Lutfa Begum’s foot healed, and her wrist was getting back some of its strength. She could do minor household work, even cook, which didn’t need full strength in any case. But she decided to playact for some more time. After all, her old bones needed some rest. It was Lipi then, who continued to toil, although the time Renubala had set for the child’s arrival was not too far. But in between her chores, she sometimes dozed off – in the afternoon, when the earth became still, with scarcely a movement anywhere, and the wind blew with a low whisper, afraid to raise the sleeping dog in the yard; or in the evening, an hour before supper time, when the sky became dark and the moon hung low, almost touching her. And while she slumbered on, all her household chores somehow got done. The same fairy-like girl, moving gracefully from kitchen to yard, from cowshed to pond, flashing a sweet smile at Lipi if she woke up and their eyes meet. “Sleep on, Ma,” the girl said each time, “I’ll take care of home.”
Lutfa Begum, much against her will, had to curb her criticism of Lipi, even give her mild approval for a dish well-cooked or a sari washed to extra-whiteness, especially since Dulal Miah was now finding Lipi a more acceptable daughter-in-law. This worried Lipi a lot. She was certain that the child in her womb was a girl, and it was she who did all the work for her. Then again, was she? Or could she be certain? Who was it who could work so fast and so well?
No, the question is not for you. It’s not for us either. We know, a common sense answer would be: Lipi herself. An uncommon sense answer, on the other hand, would point at Gafur, since in his years in the middle east, he had to do everything himself – from cooking to mending shoes. But what if there is something else, beyond the common and the uncommon, something in the region of, say, the paranormal? What then?
There is no easy answer to this question. Let’s forget about it then, and mind our story. Let’s find out what Lipi was doing. What? She was crying? Yes, she was crying disconsolately, as if she was the most wretched creature on earth. Her eyes were swollen, like a monsoon-fed river overflowing its bank. Why was she crying?
She was crying because she was now absolutely certain that the child in her womb was a girl. If the fairy girl was indeed her daughter, she must have been one of the prettiest around. But Lipi knew, no matter how pretty she was, how fairy-like her figure was, how like champa blossoms her fingers were – she would have to spend her life within the narrow bounds of the yard and the kitchen, the cowshed and the tube-well, squashed in turn by a long line of in-laws, and no less by the husband, consigned every moment of her life to hell by the battle axe of a mother-in-law. Is life a well, Lipi asked, an unredeemed stretch of darkness and descent?
Lipi’s whole body was convulsing with the force of her crying. Her legs suddenly snapped, unable to bear the weight of an unwanted child, a monster of a child who was as unwelcome as the plague. She stretched her arms and grabbed a bamboo pole. She sat leaning against the pole for a while, trying to compose herself. But her tears kept welling, and her voice kept sounding hoarser. She felt unwell, as if all her energy had drained out, and stretched herself on the cane mat. She had difficulty breathing, and her breasts kept rising and falling wildly. The sari end slipped from her breasts and slid down to her side, revealing a long stretch of her body down to the belly button. The late afternoon sun poured its milky white light on Lipi’s bare body, making it look white and radiant. Standing by her, Lutfa Begum felt a sudden burst of joy. For a moment she believed Lipi’s end was near. She bent down to examine her. Yes, the glassy eyes, the foaming mouth, the sandy cheeks – the signs were unmistakable. And her hands, how listlessly they lay beside her, and how her face looked deathly pale. Lutfa Begum silently waited for a spasm to begin. Any minute now, the woman’s body would shake violently. And then, the final whistle.
Dulal Miah, who had been observing Lipi from a distance, now hurried to her side, and squatted, facing her. He looked at her face, shook his head, and tried to lift her eyelid with his calloused fingers. There was no response from Lipi; the lid dropped and closed on the eye as soon as he let it go. His eyes now descended on her bare breasts, which looked mellow and full. His hand shook as he tried to put Lipi’s sari-end over her breasts, which he succeeded to cover half of. His hand now rested on Lipi’s womb. “O Gafur’s mother, is our grandson alive? What do you think?” he said. “What’s the problem with you, woman?” His question was now directed at Lipi.
But Dulal Miah could as well ask himself the question. Because, that very instant, he felt a violent pain in his hand. It went limp, the bone broken not less than at two places. “O my God, dear God,” he screamed, and rose to his feet, shaken to his very core. He stood on his feet for a second, then collapsed on Lutfa Begum’s shoulder. “My hand is gone, Gafur’s mother, take me to the hospital. Call Gafur. Call Moina Bhai. Call the whole village. Oooo.”
Lutfa Begum panicked. Her face turned ashen. She got hold of her husband and dragged him to the yard. “Let’s get out of here,” she shrieked, “she’ll kill us all.”
The house had fallen strangely silent. Lipi rose, and folded her cane mat, then got down to the yard. She spread the mat under the clump of lemon trees, which gave out a sweet, reassuring smell under the pale white light of a low hanging moon. Lipi sat on the mat, and rested her head on the curve of a branch, and placed a hand on her womb. As she felt her child move, she began to feel happy. Then she started to laugh. First gently, almost under her breath, then loudly, as if she had heard or seen something really funny. As fireflies flew around her, and insects whirred, her laughter reached a crescendo. Her whole body shook and her eyes watered. She had never laughed like this before. The strange thing was, she didn’t know why she was laughing. As she laughed, her worries dissipated. Her fears too. She was certain – the child was going to be a girl. But there was no problem with that. Let the child arrive: let her arrive with all her fears or fearlessness, her courage or lack of courage – let her arrive with whatever she cared to bring with her. Lipi wouldn’t worry at all about her. The child had just broken her grandfather’s hand, this time really badly. This act, too, didn’t count. Lipi wouldn’t see this as a sign of the girl’s strength or power. She wouldn’t even think about who kicked whom and why. All she would do was spend time with her, telling her stories of a lifetime. The rest the girl would take care of.
She placed both her hands on her womb and said gently, ‘O my daughter, my princess, my sweet little princess.’