Weekday afternoons usually found me standing in the front porch of our home in Bongaon, a village in Bangladesh. Suraj, my husband came home by a train that stopped in the station near our home. The rail station had some convenient stores too. The village didn’t have too many shops and the those stores were good for getting tea, milk and snacks.
Our small bungalow stood on a hill surrounded by pristine natural beauty. Trains were important for the local people for the railway was the only way we could go out of town. And more for me since Suraj worked as an engineer in the Bangladesh Railways. I could visit my parents living in the next town on one of the trains too.
I cherished watching the moving green carriages. They looked like long, fuming caterpillars racing on the long tacks. Whenever an on coming train’s whistle floated through the quiet village, I would ask myself, where are the passengers going?
And then, as the ‘rickey..rick..rickety..rick..’ sound faded, I would be left, wondering about the happy and sad faces on the running trains. Hundreds of travelers, countless lives and their unknown worlds riddled my thoughts. I would envision myself buying tickets to go away to some far away land one day.
Bongaon, the village we lived in, was small and backward in some ways. But I loved it for its scenic beauty. Rice fields sprawled around the hills and gave away to a huge marshland. Clusters of village cottages dotted the flat lands while palm and bamboo trees stood towering over hedges and bushes. The rice fields were flecked with different hues of green. When the wind blew over the fields, green and yellow waves seem to run over the crops. Rivers snaked around the land, cutting across the villages on the east. It was a magical sight when sunlight during sunrise fell on the rivers and the waves glistened like fairy wands. On the west, as far as the eyes could see, the railway curved around the hills and ran on towards the hazy, blue horizon. Following the railway to the far, at one point the vision would be lost. From there I would imagine monsters or saints occupying the tracks. The unknown held my curiosity like a captive. On the north, mountains bordering India stole my heart with their bluish silhouettes every time I set my gaze on them. I would imagine trains running beyond the horizon and me a passenger, going away to strange lands.
If I got on a train one day and just went on, perhaps I would be in Assam of India? I would ask the wind. On the south we had endless stretches of hills and marshlands meeting hills in the horizon. The horizon held the ultimate mystery from every direction.
I loved my surroundings and so being out in the balcony was a cherished part of my days. It was fun to watch the trains enter the station, engines smoking away happily. Then, the station bell would start clanging to get people out of the incoming train’s way. Next came the screeching of the wheels as the train came to a halt. Trains stopped for ten minutes and then give a long “Choooooo…” before pulling out of the station and start it’s next journey.
At times I waved at passengers visible through the carriage windows. The trains answered back with their loud whistles. “ hello, bye…hello..bye..’ they seemed to shout. But the train that brought Suraj home was the special one for me.
Then, like a summer storm that comes from nowhere, there came a day, when my happy hours of waiting for my husband changed. It was strange how lightning could strike on a perfect summer sky.
On that particular Monday, I was on the porch in the late afternoon, waiting for Suraj. A full moon was due that night and I had put some gardenias on my hair, Suraj loved the scent of the flowers. Full moon nights were supposed to hold ill omens for husbands and we were taught that the cloying scent of gardenias kept demons away. I patted my flower in the hair, making sure it sat tight while my eyes scanned the path for my husband.
Usually, soon after the train had left, Suraj emerged from the right side of the station building and started to walk along the narrow path leading to our cottage. But, I stared at the woman he had with him. Who could it possibly be? Suraj had not mentioned any guest in the text messages he had sent through the day. The woman and Suraj were talking and laughing as they walked. At a I could tell that they were knew each other. I went to open the door and holding my breath, I waited.
As Suraj and the woman reached the doorway, my eyes looked questioningly at my husband but I smiled at the woman. Suraj hastened to introduce us even though I already held out my hand saying, “ Namaskhar. I am Rani, Suraj’s wife. To me he said,
“Rani, Nimmi is my classmate from the university. I met her traveling on my train and on my request she has come to meet you. “ He paused and then went on to say, “Sorry didn’t text you. Nimmi will leave on the next train and so rushed home.”
It was not unusual for Suraj to bring unannounced guests but I had to know how to set them. He loved to be with friends and it was pleasant to have some good times once in a while for both of us when friends came over.
“The best thing to be done for a friend I’m sure.” said I as I extended my hand. “Welcome to our home, it’s good to meet you.” I smiled at Nimmi as I led her on towards the living room. Suraj went off to change and wash as he always did.
As I watched Nimmi settle down on the sofa, I could hardly take my eyes off her. How could God have made a woman so beautiful? Her complexion was delicate like pink roses and she had the appearance of a goddess. Her eyes were like large dark pools and shrouded with, long lashes. The sharp nose on the oval face complemented the perfectly shaped neck. Her lips were delicate and on a wide, generous mouth. I must have stared too long for she hastened to ask.
“Is there something wrong, Rani?” Nimmi’s Cleopatra like eyes bore deep into mine.
“Ah no, nothing actually. Pardon me for staring. You are so beautiful!”
“Beauty is a surface thing.” said Nimmi, taking the seat I offered to her. “What really matters is the heart of a person.”
“That is so of course, but not every woman could have a Venus like look like you.” Said I thinking of my own dark complexion and my average features.
Alas, the society looked down and held dark complexion in disgrace. To people looks came before the personality of girls. No wonder everyone was rubbing skin lightening creams on their faces. But I was sure that Nimmi was a natural beauty.
Remembering that our guest was not staying long, I got up. If she was not having dinner than I should hurry with the tea.
“Nimmi, wait a second while I get some tea and we then can talk away.” I said and hurried to the kitchen. I had some potato fritters ready for tea and so returned quickly with everything loaded on the tray.
Suraj came back from his freshening up also. I noted that he had changed to a white punjabi that he usually reserved for special occasions. The whiteness gave him a saintly look with his the manly features. I considered myself lucky to have a handsome husband like him. As I came back with the tea, I found Nimmi and Suraj absorbed in deep conversations.
Looking at me, Suraj started telling Nimmi about how his mother had arranged our marriage and how, like a shooting star, our wedding had come within two days of his mother’s selecting me as a bride. He talked on about how he had to leave home right after the wedding to join his new office in Bongaon. He paused after saying, “I am really lucky to have found Rani you know. She is a wonderful cook too. But I can make the pudding better than her.”
He was looking strangely at Nimmi and then turning around, smiled at me as if making sure that I had listened to what he said about me.
“Actually Suraj is rather a good cook too, its wonderful the way husbands these days help out in the kitchen.” I started but soon stopped, aware that we were talking about ourselves only. So I asked, “What about your family, Nimmi?”
She blushed and hastened to reply, “I haven’t married yet. I live with my father and mother in Dhaka. But I travel for my office and hence Suraj found me today.”
I was surprised. So beautiful a creature still unattached and roaming free?
“But why dear? I should have imagined for you to have tied the knot much sooner than Suraj.” I blurted without meaning to.
“Maybe my Prince Charming didn’t turn up yet.” Nimmi said giving me a smile that held some sadness in it. Then, she pushed her chair back suddenly getting up from her place. I looked at her, her face was flushed and I could see tears in her eyes.
I wondered if I had reminded her of someone, a tragic love ? Rather hurriedly Nimmi, picked her handbag from the table and said, “Please can you show me the washroom, I need to freshen up a bit.”
I led her towards my bedroom for we had the better bathroom for our house. I waited outside the door, wondering about the loud sobbing inside the bathroom. Was Nimmi sick? I wanted to knock on the door but and then thought better of it. Curiosity getting better of me, I pressed my ears on the bathroom door. Eaves dropping was not a good thing, but on such moments reasons get lost. I heard Nimmi’s voice,
“Why did you have to bring me home? Why are you hurting me by telling me you are happy? You disappeared suddenly after being mine for so long…” Came Nimmi’s voice accompanied by more sobs. It was evident that she was talking on her cell phone, it must have been in her handbag.
I felt goosebumps, my heart raced. Who was she talking to? Then came the sound of water running from our sink and some of her words got lost. As the water stopped running, I could hear her voice.
“I can see your wife is pregnant, did you bring me to show what a big liar you are, why you talked about having a baby with me? I am sorry I met you or came with you. But I love you still and just wanted to be a bit longer with you.”
From the bathroom there the sound of Nimmi blowing her nose as she continued to cry. Once again water was running on the sink and then came the sound of the flush tank. I hurried out of the room before she came out. In the living room, Suraj was not in his seat.
Evidently he too was in the guest bathroom near the living room. I heard the water running inside and heard his voice. I stepped closer to his door out of intuition, what was going on?
“Nimmi, I had no intention to leave you but was helpless against my family’s wishes.”
I could hear Suraj’s voice over the running water. For once I was glad that he had a curious habit of using a loud voice over cell phones. He went on.
“Stop crying, I didn’t bring you to insult you, I too wanted be with you for a bit more time…do you think I have really forgotten you or stopped loving you?”
I stood glued for seconds, what was I hearing? I was frozen but forced myself to move and sauntered back to my seat.
My eyes rested on two cups of tea and snacks, untouched on the table. Feeling confused, slowly I sat down in my own chair. Trying to make sense of the conversation I overheard. But I was lost, suddenly my life was taken by a storm. I took fritters one by one, pushing them into an unwilling mouth. I didn’t know how to sit still when I wanted to scream and demand explanations for a hidden drama behind my back, one that was burning my life like fire.
Suraj and Nimmi were more than friend then. Were they still in love?
Soon Suraj came out of the bathroom. I watched him as he closed the door with his left hand while his right hand held the cellphone. Before reaching the table he put it back in the punjabi’s pocket.His face was unusually sad. Of course a little drama had been going on in the bathrooms between Nimmi and Suraj.
To avoid me both had gone to bathrooms to hide and talk. My eyes traveled to Suraj’s face again. My heart cried out, I loved him too. Strange was the world of relationships. While his mother might have taken his love away from him in our arranged marriage, I also had my secrets life when my family forced me into marrying him. Who does not fall in love at least once in his or her youth? I did too. But that part of my life would have to remain hidden if I wanted to keep peace at home.
The difference was that Suraj had his past love life in the open.
There came an uneasy feeling over me, what if like Nimmi meeting Suraj, the man from my past suddenly resurfaced? What if after seeing Nimmi that day, Suraj gave second thoughts to our marriage? She was still free and it took only seconds in the modern times for a marriage to fall apart.
My mind running wildly, Suraj and I waited. When Nimmi came back from the bathroom, I fixed my lips to a smile and forced my eyes to twinkle. I pretended not to note our guest’s tear stained face. I felt like an actress as we went on with our conversations with Nimmi checking her watch repeatedly. The next train was nearing its arrival time. As I watched, I could see Suraj and Nimmi avoiding looking at each other. They were like two river banks waiting on two sides while the water flowed in between and carried life with it while they remained wide apart.
Far away a train whistled. With a hastylook at her watch, Nimmi stood up and straightened her sari. She took her handbag and patted her hair, putting into place few stands that were on her eyes.
I put my hands up on my gardenia in the hair, making sure it guarded my husband for the coming full moon. So far it indeed did bring threats to my married life.
“Rani, it was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for the tea and delicious fritters .” Nimmi said stretching her lips to a ghostly smile. I could see that she hadn’t touched any food.
“Come again Nimmi and visit us whenever you want.” said I hoping I sounded positive despite wishing not to set my eyes on her again. Jealousy was not my being, but it had its claws out that day.
“Sure, I’ll try to come. You are truly an angel and are very lucky to have Suraj as a husband”. Nimmi said as she walked toward the door.
Does that mean I am not good enough for him? A voice piqued within me.
I looked at her face, fresh tears filled the beautiful eyes. Just then I felt the baby in my womb move and I was filled with a strange, larger sense of my being. Surely I can be the better of myself and take the blessing I have? I gave her a parting hug saying,
“Fate is strange in having us meet today. You have known Suraj longer than me, studied with him for six years. I have known him since my wedding night, two years only.” I put out my hand toward Suraj and he took it, as if he sensed my insecurity. The understanding in his hold had no words to describe.
Soon Nimmi left and that was the first and last I saw of her. I continue to wait for the local train to bring Suraj home and weave tales about the people travelling on the railway. Nimmi had stepped out of my curiosity about the passengers on the passing trains, to remind me that truth is stranger than fiction. I realized that time does not erase all wounds. When love hurts, it never heals.
To this day, in my inner eyes I see Nimmi with Suraj and his voice echoes back on the phone saying, ‘…do you think I have stopped loving you?’
The voice comes, fresh as ever, haunting me with every train whistle I hear. My married life was on a fragile thread despite the surety of our vows.
Tulip Chowdhury writes from Massachusetts, USA.
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