FOLLOW, FOLLOW, FOLLOW
Hidden behind the bolts of saree fabrics on display at the Khulna Bazaar branch of Noman Silk Emporium is a closet that was, until a year ago, routinely used by the shop’s tailor for client fittings and alterations. Large enough for the average Bengali woman, and usually too small for her portly mother-in-law, the quasi-changing room has a false bottom that only a few know about. Underneath is a crawlspace that runs five arms long but only two arms deep, stored with the remnants of old saree orders. When women from the surrounding Khulna area came in to try on their saree blouses and shirts, it was here the tailor often crouched to look up into the fitting room through a peephole on the floor, imperceptible like a groove in the patterned, worn wood.
It was here Rumana now sat, awkwardly tucked away in the dusty crawlspace surrounded by a swathe of blouses and petticoats in different stages of completion, strips of magenta, peacock green and burnt orange silk, and a plastic blue measurement tape. She used the tape the last time she was here, having been struck with the sudden urge to quantify the size of her stomach, which has started to spill dough-like over the waist belt of her pants (borrowed quietly from her brother’s room) like a misshapen silk pillow, once smooth and firm but now marked with pockets where the surface went completely slack. She wished the hiding spot were large enough for her to sit cross-legged without having to round over; at 16, she feels she’s taking up more space than she did before and has developed a terrible habit of cutting off the sleeves from her clothes because they are all too tight now, the flesh underneath expanding faster than she knows what to do about it. Crawling around on her hands and knees was uncomfortable but it also made her feel safer somehow; as if having to stay crouched and contracted, palms and knees heavy but stable, meant less of her was exposed.
There was no knowing exactly how long she’d have to hide this time, but whenever the Mukhti Bahini rode into town on their trucks it was the same routine for Rumana and her family. They’d been following it for three months now, and so far, it had worked every time. Their cook, Aziz, would clang the pots lined along the kitchen wall, a signal for everyone in the family to leave the house immediately. Rumana’s parents went next door to their sympathetic Bengali friends, the only ones left still willing to provide sanctuary; her brother disappeared each time, she suspects, somewhere deep into the thick forested jungle that lies past their home, the woodlands too foreboding for her to traverse, and so she comes here to this abandoned saree shop that has no locks, no windows and only a few rusty Singer sewing machines in varied states of decay. The shop itself is a seventeen-minute walk from the house through the back streets, which run partially through the dense, wet forest along the Rupsa River; close enough to get to in a fear-driven sprint, and far enough away so that the din of rumbling trucks settled into silence as she ran, the leaves overhead muffling all sounds like a canopy.
Reaching into her study bag, Rumana pulls out her essentials: the February 1970 issue of Filmfare magazine which was already a couple of months old but had her favorite Bollywood actress on the cover, a water bottle she stole from her brother after losing her own when school shut down six months ago, a torch Aziz gave her when he first told her about the hiding place in his brother’s shop, back when the rumors had just begun to perpetuate about the trucks full of armed men riding across the country with eyes twisted with fury so black, so venomous that their souls were beyond saving. Or so Aziz had told her. How he knew about the color of anyone’s soul, Rumana didn’t ask.
The study bag also held a notebook, a few pencils and deck of cards. Her Mukhti Bahini Survival Kit, she’d once called it in front of her mother who, with her usually flared eyes and pursed lips, had said nothing then but Rumana had heard her later, crying on the phone. The Mukhti Bahini had taken another one of her friends from a neighboring town and there was no news of what they’d done with her after. After what, Rumana wanted to know.
Other than knowing they were men who traveled on trucks, carried guns they didn’t all know how to use and hated Pakistanis, there wasn’t a lot Rumana understood about the Mukhti Bahini. That they were a guerilla army made up of mostly ordinary Bengali citizens who wanted independence from Pakistan was something she gleaned from conversations she overheard between Aziz and her father, their lowered voices failing to suppress the panic in a phrase they both repeated like it was a mantra: “Allah malik hai humara.” God owns our destinies. Rumana knew that wasn’t true; it wasn’t God who owned their destinies, but a bureaucratic Bengali friend of her father’s who owed him a favor and had just secured passage for all of them to London. Their flight was in a week. All they had to do was stay hidden, and far away from the clutches of the Mukhti Bahini raids for just six more days.
The raids were growing in frequency, and the latest one happened in a town just across the river from them, not even two hours away. She learned about it from her brother, who told her details no one else would, his twenty-year-old baby face hardening when he spoke: the Mukhti Bahini raped all the women, tortured all the children, and cut the throat of every Pakistani man who stood in their way. The ordeal lasted eighteen hours and ended with the entire town on fire. He told her about their weapons, how many men they had, where their stronghold was, and where he felt their presence was weak, vulnerable. How did he know this? she wanted to ask, but didn’t. It didn’t matter who knew what anymore. The only thing that mattered was survival. Please don’t be stupid, Rumana had told him. He was both her nemesis and her constant companion, and she couldn’t bear the thought of him being taken away by the men with black souls. He had laughed and told her to shut up and always stay hidden, no matter what. That was two weeks ago, and in the three times the Mukhti Bahini had come since, she’d done just that.
Today was no exception. Sitting cross-legged, Rumana bends forward, an elbow resting on each thigh, the torch between her teeth, and the magazine splayed out on the ground in front of her. In such a cramped space, it’s the only comfortable position for reading although what she’s really doing is gawking at its cover star Rekha, the Bollywood femme fatale whose movies Rumana loves watching. The perfectly placed red pallu on the head, that exaggerated jet-black winged liner, the knowing look that more than confirmed all the gossip about her and her male costars – it was all so stylish, so seductive, so devastatingly stunning. Rekha didn’t care what other people said about her, she just continued to be Rekha. Rumana envied the actress for how poised and unaffected she looked in these pictures. Rekha didn’t have to worry about staying hidden for another 6 days from men who were out to kill you, or about what she would do if they found her, her brother, or her parents. No. All Rekha had to do was look beautiful and act in movies where her slender frame and sultry eyes made everyone fall in love with her. It was simple for Rekha.
That was what Rumana wanted now: to be slender and skinny and free of worries about soldiers. She craved the simplicity of a life where death was not a constant fear, longed for the mundane routine of her school days before any of the madness started. But even school, before it had shut down, had stopped being a place of comfort for Rumana and she had struggled to ignore the long constant stares and the loud whispers that followed her around. All the other Pakistanis had left, one family after another, and towards the end Rumana and her brother were the only ones still there. While her best friend Meena thrived on the attention, cultivated it from the way she used safety pins to tighten her shirts before class every morning and wore her shalwar so low it rode her hips, Rumana went to school with her dupatta draped around her like a shawl. Meena could stand to do all that, Rumana understood now, she was a Bengali and therefore safe from harm, safe from the soldiers. Rumana wasn’t. She carried a dupatta with her at all times. Even now, it helps her stay hidden.
That’s the rule they’ve been following for the past two years, all the Pakistanis in East Pakistan. Those who haven’t left must stay hidden, and those who stay have to give up everything that was ever theirs. It didn’t make much sense to Rumana, this idea that East Pakistan suddenly, in 1970, wanted to undo itself entirely from Pakistan to be born anew as Bangladesh. It was like deboning the hilsa fish before cooking it in a fragrant coconut curry. It wasn’t right. The bones couldn’t simply be taken out, they added flavor and without them, the curry was just a mess of broken, scattered fish chunks. Rumana didn’t want that happening to East Pakistan; it was where she grew up. She was born in Khulna hospital in 1955, attended both Khulna Foundation School and Khulna High School (until it closed), went to Khulna Mela every year for the last 5 years with her friends, and spent countless summer evenings picnicking in Khulna Park. Never once had it occurred to her that Khulna would no longer be home, that it would become something she was no longer entitled to call her own, that all the places she’s ever known and the faces she’s grown up with would so quickly become alien, empty, and unwelcoming. But that’s exactly what was happening, and more than anything, even more than her desire to be like Rekha, Rumana just wanted it all to stop and go back to normal.
The 10-hour ride from Dhaka to Khulna took two days. The roads were narrow and devoid of any marked lanes. All vehicles going the other way had to veer off the roads and park on the grassy fields to make way for the trucks full of soldiers to pass by. Mansoor counted 17 cars, 22 bikes, 7 buses, and over three dozen donkey and horse carts. Sometimes, they waited for hours – the drivers and passengers of the cars, bikes, buses, and carts who were mostly displaced villagers evacuating their homes to get away from the fighting – while the trucks halted and the soldiers disembarked to perform interviews and inspections, following orders they had just made up themselves. These inspections, of which Mansoor was not an active participant but an entertained observer, involved all manner of theft, bribery and extortion. The soldiers pocketed whatever they deemed to be of value and forced the villagers to unpack their belongings and give up any money or gold they were hiding. After each ‘inspection’ the soldiers compared their treasures with each other; some vowed to send these earnings home after the war was over, though they never would, and others dreamed aloud of buying a fancy Jeep or a fishing hut in Chittagong, fantasies that fueled their excitement for the next stop, for the next inspection, and made them feel good about themselves and their new ill-gotten gains.
Mansoor watched and heard it all from a distance, usually with a lit cigarette in his mouth. These were small victories for men who had nothing before they became soldiers, who drew power from harassing the defenseless. None of it brought Mansoor any kind of joy or satisfaction. It was all meaningless to him. He had no use for hidden gold lockets and bundles of Rupees packed slyly in old biscuit tins. He stayed focused on the task ahead, on the real reason he was on one of three trucks full of soldiers being dispatched to Khulna. They had orders to follow, and although Mansoor wasn’t ranked high enough to know what they were, he spent his time on the two day journey wondering what they were being sent to find in Khulna.
Rumana wakes up to the sound of a loud bump overhead. She’s lying on her side, knees to her chest, one arm tucked underneath her body, the other clutching the magazine. Her shirt is sticky, glued to her body and dampening the dupatta that covers her. How long has she been asleep? She isn’t wearing a watch, and has no other reasonable way to tell time here. The only source of light is the changing room above her, where a single light bulb dangles; flickering at intervals she’s tried to time on multiple occasions.
Quietly, with minimal movement, Rumana switches the torch off. In her last three visits to the shop, she’s discovered how unpredictably loud the floorboards can be. Any unexpected shifting of weight could cause an unholy creaking. To her right are the stairs; the stairs that lead up to the false bottom door on the changing room floor. If that door opens, she’ll be visible. She won’t stay hidden.
Thump. Thump, thump. Thump, thump, thump.
Are there two men up there or just one? Rumana lies still, willing her ears to listen harder. Her armpits itch, slick with sweat and dust, and her tongue feels like cotton. She gulps and is alarmed by how loud it sounds. She can’t hear any voices upstairs at all, just footsteps, heavy and determined. What could they possibly want? There was nothing upstairs except for empty fabric rolls. Ever since Aziz’s brother upped and left last year, like so many other Pakistani business owners on this street, no one else has been in this shop except for her and a few looters who took most of the silk and the functioning sewing machines.
Tap, tap. Tap, tap.
Someone is knocking on the changing room door. The sound comes through the floorboards like a faint rumble, ominous like thunder before a monsoon shower. It makes Rumana want to pee and throw up at the same time. Oh God, she thinks, oh God oh God oh God. She hears the door swing open. Her eyes are squeezed shut, and her brain is trying and failing, again and again, to remember a prayer—any prayer—or even a fragment of a prayer, that will protect her from whatever is up there. Nothing sticks. The attempt is futile, like climbing a ladder with disappearing rungs. All Rumana can remember are the words she overheard. God owns our destinies.
Above, there is a heavy step, then two. Something falls. Please don’t let them find me, prays Rumana, please let me stay hidden. Still lying on her side, Rumana extends her legs, reaching out with her feet to pick up whatever fabric fits in the grip of her toes, bringing it back to pile over herself. The process is slow, but she has a lot of discarded fabric around her to use. Stay hidden, stay hidden, that’s the rule. She’s compact now, arms wrapped tight around the knees, head tucked in. The important thing now is to keep still and hope her plan works, so that whoever opens the door won’t see anything more than a tailor’s messy working space and a heap of discarded, forgotten fabrics. Left behinds that no one wants anymore.
The false bottom gives out, its rusted hinges wailing as the door to the crawlspace is pushed open and into Rumana’s hiding spot. Stay hidden, stay hidden. Rumana opens one eye. Her head is hot and heavy and, with all that’s covering her, she feels like she’s breathing through dirt. First, there’s her own white cotton dupatta, then there’s a series of Banarsi silk pieces, a mix of pale yellows and pistachio greens, sturdy enough to stitch without fear of the fabric unraveling, yet fine enough to just about see through.
A flashlight shines circles around her head, the beams moving like a kaleidoscope through the silk. It’s hard for Rumana to see anything past the brightness of the orange light. There are more sounds. A thud, then another.
It’s a man, grunting. His voice is gruff, and sounds a little like her brother when he’s irritated. What is this stranger annoyed about, she wonders, amazed that even now, foolish thoughts fill her mind faster than any divine wisdom.
Both eyes now open, Rumana tries to make out what’s happening but her vision is obscured. A hand descends down into the crawlspace, reaching for the edge of its open door. She tries not to gasp as she catches the color of the man’s sleeve: military green. A moment later, the hand pulls up the door, shutting it. A thud again, a stumble, then darkness. Whoever was up there decided not to come down, and switched off the lone light bulb upstairs as they left. Rumana lets her body go slack and breathes, all the prayers she’d memorized as a child flooding into her mind.
“Okhane kuchu nahi, pukka time waste,” Mansoor says, closing the shop door behind him as he steps out onto the street to light a cigarette. The sky is overcast, unpredictable. Mansoor sniffs deeply. The air feels heavy, pungent like a dank dishtowel. He knows the sky will burst open tonight.
“No matter, no matter,” replies his Sergeant in broken English, who is leaning against the side of the truck they rode to town in, smoking a beedi. Mansoor can’t stand the smell of it; its processed tobacco smells like a burning tire and is as strong as a dozen cigarettes rolled into one. If he, a lowly OR-1 Sainik, can afford to buy a pack of imported Gold Leaf every week, why couldn’t the OR-6 Sergeant do the same? No one smoked these cheap beedis anymore. There were many things about the Sergeant that Mansoor didn’t understand. Even his order this afternoon to raid Khulna Bazaar was nonsensical. Everyone knew the town was empty, abandoned last year, with no Pakistani to be seen.
But Mansoor did as he was told. He followed orders, instead of questioning them. Even the decision to join Mukhti Bahini wasn’t his own. It was his father’s. All he had to do was follow, follow, follow. First, he followed the men to the sign-up post outside his college in Akhaura, then he followed the same men who, like him, were handed weapons to shoot with and became soldiers overnight, to the trains that took him to Dhaka, where he followed other men and other soldiers, this time with bigger guns, into trucks that brought him to Khulna. In all this following, there was very little thinking. All Mansoor wanted was something to occupy his time this summer, to stop from thinking about Payal.
“Ab kya? Should we go back?” Mansoor wants to leave Khulna. He wants to return to Akhaura, to college, to the memories of his daily clandestine meetings with Payal in the far corner of the cafeteria, where they often shared a samosa and a Coke.
“You stupid or what? This is S-Force, chokra. No going until all work finished.” At the last word, the Sergeant comically sticks out his tongue and runs a pointed finger across his neck. He flicks away his beedi, still lit, then retches and spits forcefully without aiming, the buttons of his uniform coming undone at his rounded belly, exposing wad of thick, black navel hair.
Following the spitball’s trajectory, Mansoor eyes the Sergeant, hiding his disdain. Every day in the army brought with it a unique life lesson for Mansoor. Today, for example, he watches his Sergeant and realizes: rank most certainly did not dictate manners.
“Until what’s done, Sergeant?” he asks, even though he knows the answer. He likes to see his portly, ill-mannered commanding officer get worked up about the Pakistanis. It keeps him in the older man’s good books and distracts him from his own thoughts, so he doesn’t think about the champa-laced fragrance of Payal’s hair.
“Until all these madarchod bhenchod Pakistanis are gone! OUR Bangladesh! OUR land! OUR language! Bangla, Bangla, Bangla!” At each exclamation, the Sergeant continues to mimic beheadings, so that by the end of his outburst, he’s mimicked at least five heads being cut off. He climbs up to the driver’s seat of the truck, huffing and puffing.
“Bhoy kurina guli boma, amraa shobai Mujib sena,” responds Mansoor with a smile. We don’t fear bullets and bombs, we are all part of Mujib’s army. That chant was one of the many he’d picked up on his way to Khulna, shouting with the other soldiers in the truck who thumped their chests and banged their heads, shaking like frenzied heroin addicts desperate for their next fix. All they wanted was a cause, and this was it. Mansoor knows all the chants, all the words, he just doesn’t believe in the national cause as arduously as the others. His motivation to take out all the Pakistanis stems from a more personal trauma.
“Aye, chokra! Now come on, let’s go,” the Sergeant motions for him to climb up.
Mansoor gestures back that he has to piss. Even though the street is deserted, he feels oddly exposed out here, as if any minute someone could come by with more authority than the two of them and tell them to leave. The silk shop is a better option, he figures. Putting out his cigarette, he motions at the Sergeant to wait and turns around to head back inside the shop.
Mansoor walks towards the closet he inspected earlier; he thinks there was a bucket there. He’s seen other soldiers piss and defecate without a thought about where they are or who’s around but that hasn’t settled well with him. It is one of the many aspects of this new soldier life he hasn’t quite adjusted to. The chants and songs were one thing, but treating the entire country like it was one giant urinal was quite another. Mansoor wasn’t raised that way.
Opening the closet door, Mansoor pauses. The light bulb, which he is certain he switched off, is on and swaying to and fro. The trap door on the floor, an odd feature he had literally stumbled upon just a little while ago because he’d almost fallen through it, is open. Should he call the Sergeant back inside? No, he could already predict the man’s reaction. No matter, no matter, he’d murmur, unconcerned about clues and undoubtedly thinking about his next meal. And what was the point anyway? Nothing would come out of him describing to the Sergeant how uneasy he felt in this shop, as if there was more to it he couldn’t see. The Sergeant would just guffaw loudly and spit some more.
Mansoor scans the small space for the bucket his bladder now desperately needs. There isn’t one here. Maybe he’s mistaken, and saw it downstairs. Pulling out the flashlight from his pocket, Mansoor gingerly takes a step down, then another, into the crawlspace. He’s too tall to go any further. Waving his flashlight around, he’s struck by the pile of colorful clothes in front of him, an amalgamation of vibrant fabrics and prints, all of which he can easily, and instantly, picture Payal in. The peacock green would bring out the hint of hazel in her almond shaped eyes, while the marigold yellow would complement her sunny smile, and the magenta, oh the magenta! That would make a glorious bridal dress. See, it’s happening again; there’s nothing that doesn’t remind him of Payal.
“Bhenchod,” he mutters, unzipping his pants. He would simply have to make do. It’s not like any one was coming back here, he mused, aiming just slightly left of the pile of clothes.
Relieving himself takes longer than expected, and a whole minute passes before Mansoor bends down to the pile of fabrics and picks one up to wipe himself with. He chooses the magenta, pleased with the softness of the silk against him. When he looks around to toss it, his gaze falls on two straps of a book bag, protruding out from the edge of the pile. The uneasiness rises in his chest now; maybe it’s this small space or the surreal nature of being in an abandoned shop full of reminders of the life that once went on here but he couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was more to this shop than what he was seeing. These clothes, their colors and cuts, they were all chosen by someone once, to have stitched and sewn for a special occasion or reason and where were they all now? The people were all gone, the town was deserted. Mansoor knew that, but it still didn’t add up: why was there a book bag here?
He pulls at the bag’s two straps and the pile of colorful clothes disintegrates. Blues and yellows fall to the side, each fabric strip sliding off of the other until all that is left is the shape of a body lying on its side, covered with a delicate white sheet.
Mansoor stands still, holding the flashlight steady. It’s not a dead body, he decides; he’s smelled too many to know that this isn’t one. The only weapon he has on him is a baton, which he has yet to use on another human being. The other soldiers like to whip theirs around, play-fighting made up scenes in which they bash heads and shatter knees of made up Pakistani characters: Akhtar the arrogant mill owner, Shahid the rich businessman, sometimes a helpless wife or daughter named Maryam. The body in front of Mansoor doesn’t look like an Akhtar or a Shahid, it looks like a girl who now shifts, sits up and removes the white cloth that covers her. As she moves, Mansoor remains still, inexplicably in awe. The girl is young, younger than Payal, and so dramatically unlike Payal.
Her hair, which is lighter than Payal’s raven mane, reaches her shoulders and is the color of chestnut, matted and flat on her head. Her oval face is painted with perspiration, the cheeks chubby, and the nose flat and wide, with beads of sweat dotting her neck. Sitting cross-legged, surrounded by all the colorful strips of fabrics, she folds her arms tightly against her chest and looks up at him. Her gaze is direct and her eyes are big and bright in the glare of his flashlight. She’s scared, Mansoor knows, and is doing a poor job of masking it.
“Theek acho, it’s okay, no danger, no danger,” he tells her, taking a step back. He wants to reassure her that he means no harm. At any moment, the Sergeant could come inside to check on him and that could lead to a mess. He knows what the other units did in the next town: treating the women like war booty, using and discarding them thoughtlessly, sometimes burning them in piles, or slashing their bodies open down the front while making their kids watch. His truck crossed the town this morning, and the smell of it is one he will need to wash out of his clothes later.
“Please.” The girl pleads. “I am just hiding.” She gestures at the assortment of fabrics around her and wipes her forehead with the tail end of her dupatta, holding his gaze.
“Are you Pakistani?” He asks the question in Bengali. Her skin tone is light, lighter than his, light enough for him to know she’s not like him, that she’s not Bengali. But he wants to hear her say it, this girl with her quivering deep voice, entirely different from the soft-spoken Payal, whose tinkly laugh sounded like something out of a fairy tale.
“Yes. I’m Pakistani.” She responds in English. “Please, I’m just hiding. Please, will you just go?”
“Go? How can I go? If I go, what will happen to a chokri like you?”
Mansoor can’t quite explain why, but he is enjoying this conversation. The way she says “please” tells him she is educated and well-mannered, with a rich father. Mansoor wonders where the father is. Could her father be the man they were sent to Khulna for? The Sergeant, though he wasn’t supposed to, had spilled the mission details to Mansoor and told him the reason they were sent to Khulna was to capture a high-powered Pakistani businessman who was still in hiding somewhere around here. But Mansoor knows better than to ask this girl any more questions. She looks too stricken. He is strangely excited by her fear of him and for a moment, he pictures them seated together on this narrow staircase, bantering. Conversations with Payal were all one-sided with him taking the lead, and her murmuring shyly. He is sure this girl would not murmur.
“Please, what will you do to me? Just let me stay here, I am hiding.”
Mansoor frowns. Her voice is changing, getting higher, and it’s annoying him. The girl looks like she is about to cry and he wants desperately to get away from the situation entirely, to forget this stupid girl and get back in his truck and drive onwards to the next town. But Mansoor has orders to follow.
“Okay, chokri, I go now. My Sergeant, he is outside. We will go in our truck. Look, now what time it is,” he shows her the watch on his wrist. “Wait for dark, then go. Go home and tell your father there is 50,000 Rupees for his head. You, your father, you go tonight. Okay? Go tonight. I will come again tomorrow. Me and Sergeant.”
Mansoor kicks the book bag back towards her, and turns to leave. He closes the trap door gently, leaving the closet light on, and is about to swing its door shut when he hears it, faint but unmistakable. The girl’s voice, small like Payal’s now.
Mansoor didn’t tell the Sergeant about the girl. Not when the man moaned loudly about how long Mansoor took, not when he poked fun at his need for privacy while urinating, not even when they returned to the S-Force base and the rest of the soldiers looked at him expectantly, waiting to hear triumphant tales of raiding homes and torturing Pakistanis.
A part of him feels guilty about the girl, not the soldier part, but the part he left behind back in Akhaura with Payal in her delicate hands, with fingers that stroked his hair lightly every day, lifting him up away from a world where he felt like he was the only one in college not arguing for a Bangladesh for himself. He didn’t particularly care whether the national language was Bengali or Urdu. He spoke both, as did his family and almost all of his friends. It was only in the last year, when the killings began, that it seemed like everyone around him deliberately forgot this fact and made language a reason to fight, used it to spew disgusting, hateful speech that fueled senseless action. His own parents participated wholeheartedly, funding one General after another, pushing for mandatory conscription of all Bengali men until even their son joined the cause against Pakistanis.
Payal wasn’t a Pakistani, she was Bengali through and through: Bangla parents, Bangla name, Bangla heritage. After only two months of furtive campus meetings, she had asked him to talk to his parents about her, and he, smitten by the way her long black hair cascaded down her back like a waterfall he would blindly plunge into, did as she asked. Follow, follow, follow. His parents were pleased, finding her lineage more than acceptable, and they had a small, formal home ceremony where the two of them exchanged rings that came with promises of eternity. Or at least, his did.
Mansoor remembers his engagement clearly. He had worn a three piece suit, charcoal grey with a navy blue silk tie to match the color of Payal’s outfit, a long flowing kamees with small mandalas embroidered with glittering golden thread, with a matching dupatta draping her head. When she had walked into the room in her shimmery dark outfit, he remembered thinking: she looks like a starry night sky, I could look at her forever. After the ceremony they had dinner, both eating from the same plate, his hand holding hers under the table, firm like the promise they’d just made. He cannot recall what they had talked about that night, but he can describe what he had felt in just one word: settled. He had looked at Payal as she smiled politely at his father’s obnoxious jokes about Pakistani usurpers, and posed patiently for the photographer they had hired, holding still when he asked, turning on all his cues. In those moments, Mansoor had finally felt like he knew what his life was going to be about: serving this swan-like creature with everything she could ever need or want to keep the smile on her delicate lips.
A week later, he got a frantic phone call from Payal’s parents. Payal had run away with their Pakistani driver, leaving behind a note of apology. She had not mentioned Mansoor in it even once. Two weeks after that, he joined the Mukhti Bahini.
Doing as she was told, Rumana quietly exits the shop at nightfall. The air is muggy and humid, but after being cooped up under layers of fabrics in the crawlspace for several hours, she is glad to be out in the open. She can finally breathe again.
Her walk home is a treacherous one to take at night. The back streets pass through a densely forested area that is devoid of any directional markings, before opening up along the Rupsa River, where a rickety walkway leads to the back gates of her house. Rumana hasn’t taken this way home before, but the thought of staying hidden and finally seeing her family again propels her onwards.
The soldier’s words replay in her mind. Tell your father there is 50,000 Rupees for his head. Go tonight. She was shocked the soldier had left and let her stay in her hiding spot. His voice had been measured and calm, with a soothing effect on her frazzled nerves. Though she had been innately terrified, she wishes now, as she walks briskly through the forest, looking over her shoulder every minute, that she had asked for his name, where he was from, why he wasn’t going to hurt her. Although, what could she do even if she knew all of these things? It’s not like she would ever see him again.
With the river opening ahead of her, Rumana knows she is close to home. She removes the white dupatta from around her neck and fastens it like a hair band around her head, holding back her sweaty hair. Pausing at the rickety walkway to catch her breath, Rumana sets down her book bag, and pulls out her water bottle from it to take a long gulp. It has been an eventful day and all she wants now is a shower and a big plate of whatever Aziz cooked today.
The Rupsa gushes past on her right and in the sultry stillness of the night, Rumana imagines how the water will feel against her clammy skin, cleansing her of the fear that clamped her chest all day. Her legs are sore but she continues ahead. Each step feels heavy, draining her, and her stomach twists with hunger, growling irascibly. There is a louder rumble overhead and the sky bursts open, the stillness interrupted by fat drops of rain falling hard and fast, as if they were being chased on their way down.
Rumana slows down her pace; the walkway is slippery now and even a small misstep could send her tumbling down into the Rupsa. She can see the house, peeking up from behind the tall back gates, but there are no lights on. That was another rule all followed. No lights on at night as they could draw attention. Pushing open the gate, she walks along a line of champa trees in her backyard, planted by Amma over a decade ago, staying under the cover of their flat, wide leaves and edging closer to the back door of the house.
The back door opens into the kitchen, where there is no Aziz, no pots on the stove and no sounds of any other person except her. They must all be upstairs, Rumana tells herself, as though the quiet around her were manufactured. Her flat brown sandals squish against the linoleum floor and she stops to take them off before continuing into the foyer. She wants to call out for her parents and her brother, but that clamping fear from earlier in the day is back. It’s clutching at her throat. She has no voice, only the frantic, bubbling sensation that something is terribly wrong.
From the foyer, a staircase leads upstairs and Rumana makes her way up gingerly, pausing every other step to look back downstairs for any signs of movement. She knows someone else has been here, can feel the presence of something sinister as surely as she felt the rain on her face outside. She heads straight into her own room, quickly peeling off her wet clothes in the dark and pulling on a crisp, dry cotton t-shirt and a pair of pajamas. She is in a hurry to leave, even though she has no idea where she’ll go. From her dresser she grabs a few pairs of socks, one with a wad of rupees stashed inside (“for emergencies” her mother had specified), some extra shirts, and pulls on sneakers normally kept aside for sports days at school.
Her book bag now considerably heavier, Rumana heads down the hallway towards her parents’ room. Their door is wide open, the edge of their bed just barely visible in the dark. She pulls out her torch, flashing it into the room as she gets closer. At their doorway, she stops, her legs like sand underneath her.
The bed, still made, is pristine, with white satin sheets and pillows arranged stylishly. Next to it on the floor are her parents, their bodies naked and mangled, knife cuts and slashed skin, blood enveloping the carpet beneath them. Her father is headless, the stump of his neck a crimson jelly.
Rumana can’t move.
She wants to propel her body forward, to touch their faces and cry at their feet but she stands there, flashlight held up. She stares, the weight on her chest building, the grasp at her throat tightening, closing. She wonders, briefly, just for a moment before falling to her knees and throwing up, how the soldier would spend the 50,000 Rupees he would collect for the head.