It was almost love at first sight. Taufic had gone to the Lalmatia Aarong to pick up a few things and her cousin Laboni had wanted to come along. She called and said that some friends from college were joining her. It would be fun to hang out, she said. Afterwards, going to the lakeside on road 32 and having ‘‘fuchka’ was on the itenary. When Laboni and the gang walked in, all four of them together, Taufic was literally thunderstruck by one of the ‘friends’. She was a bit tall, very very fair, a long face, with hazel eyes, but a nose that was more Mediterranean than Bengali. The nose reminded her of Indira Gandhi, whose biography was being avidly consumed at home by his mom at the moment. Laboni must have noticed his face, because she said right away, ’Oh, this is Farzana by the way….and this is…’
All of a sudden Laboni had become Taufic favorite cousin. Laboni, astute and clever as ever, promised to introduce the two, provided he paid for this overpriced handbag she has seen at the One Stop Mall.
Santoor was not that packed. It was, after all a week-night and the dinner crowd was a bit sparse on these days. It was precisely for that reason Taufic had chosen that venue. It was public enough and at the same time nice, quite and classy to impress a damsel. He was actually out on a ‘date’. He had finished his MBA from IBA and was immediately gobbled up by a bank with a foreign pedigree. Since then, his family has been ‘visited’ by a large number of friends’ friends, obscure and not so obscure relatives, and even some women who are in similar positions. His parents lapped up all the attention they had been getting and at the same time goading him to make a choice, get married, and settle down. With his education over and the career more or less settled, Taufic tended to agree. Farzana seemed perfect. She seemed demure, polite, and subtle in her make-up, not that she needed much to begin with, finishing her Masters in English at Dhaka University, father was a banker just like him and mom also taught at a school. Like Taufic, there was just one other sibling.
The meeting was not what he had expected. None of the gushing of the harlequin romances, but more like the beginning of a negotiation. The numbers and statuses of immediate relatives, properties they own, future plans, whether both were ready to be married or not, and any skeletons in the closet in terms of past liaisons…. Taufic confessed there had been one, a turbulent passionate affair in his intermediate and undergrad days but it had fizzled and the girl was married with kids now, living the suburban life in Sydney. Farzana said that there had been none, there had been more than a few interests but their family being somewhat insular and conservative, she did not pursue anyone. She also said that her father was actually her step-father, her own father being out of the picture since her birth. She was born in 1971 and it has been assumed that he did not survive the turbulent times.
Laboni asked her mother, Taufic’s khala, to take the proposal to Farzana’a parents. They came over to Taufic’s, met the clan, dates were set, number of guests were negotiated and the marriage was solemnized. Laboni even got a genuine Benarasi Silk sari out of it.
Farzana’s younger sister Tarana was on the darker side, like his dad. Apparently she has had a complex about the whole thing, especially since she always got compared to her elder, fairer, therefore prettier sister. She described herself as wheatish brown and her bathroom cabinet was filled with all kinds of fairness products that were available. Somehow her complexion stubbornly refused to upgrade itself from wheatish brown to a lighter version of brown but she wouldn’t give up. Farzana’s admonitions about these products always came with a rebuttal, ‘look who is talking’. Tarana was the spoilt brat who had the run of the house, but Farzana was the over-protected one. Her mom was more open to Tarana and Farzana always perceived her mom as somewhat cold towards her. Not that there was any neglect or cruelty, but the bonds that are supposed to be there between a mother and her first born was somewhat lacking. Father was always kind, somewhat formal, and looked after everything Farzana ever needed. But she could feel that it required an effort, which he executed flawlessly, never letting her feel like a step-daughter. Ever aware of the attentions Farzana would get due her complexion and looks, they were always on the alert, gently guiding her to stay out of trouble. However, when Tarana and their dad interacted, sparks flew. All the coquettishness of a young girl came out of Tarana naturally and father indulged her daughter. Mother was always a bit distant, quiet, had a fixed smile on her face, always observing everyone, never interfering. It was an atmosphere Farzana wanted to escape. She wanted to be doted upon, the centre of someone’s entire existence. She hoped and prayed that Taufic would be her pillar and her prayers had come through.
Not only Taufic, but the entire clan doted on her. A fair skinned beauty, but also down to earth, she got along with everyone was an instant hit. They have become the golden couple, him with the flying career in finance and a trophy wife and she the doyen of every elderly female and an item of jealousy among his colleagues and their wives. She also became the benchmark of all future bridal acquisitions, fair, educated, spoke bangle and English with equally ease, a budding gourmet cook, looked after the in-laws like her own and quite the host, throwing small elegant dinners with menus coming out of the ever growing piles of cookbooks collected from New market and Nilkhet.
Two and half years have passed. Now there are perpetual hints about the ‘need’ to have a baby. Both of them were really in love, happy, and life trudged on; there wasn’t any compulsion for parenthood for either of them. But Taufic had been concerned lately. Farzana kept having this slight fever which after all kinds of antibiotics, refused to go away. Blood tests were suggesting some kind of infection but after going through several doctors, nothing could be pinpointed as a source. Other than the slight temperature and the occasional fatigue that accompanied, she seemed to be nonchalant about the whole thing and kept assuring her hubby to be patient. It would eventually go away.
Anyway, Taufic was about to be sent to Singapore by his bank for a training on financial derivatives and he applied for his holiday right after the training was over. He would take his wife and enjoy a kind of second honeymoon and at the same time get her wife checked out over there.
Farzana was ecstatic there. Singapore was like a dream, with walkable streets, window shopping, a variety of street foods and a gleaming cityscape. She would wander about during the day, check back in to the hotel room in the late afternoon and wait for Taufic to return from his training, get some rest and hit the town again. There was always some rendezvous with some colleagues and afterwards they would go for a walk by the waterfront. The doctor’s appointment was next Tuesday.
The doctor heard her history, frowned, and ordered a whole volley of tests that subjected her to giving out what seemed like vials of blood, peeing in a cup, and waiting for two long days. He immediately referred her to nephrologists who seemed to repeat the blood drawing all over again, and put her inside a giant scanner to look into a 3D image of her kidneys. There was no good news. The reason for her recurrent fever was that both of her kidneys were not functioning, polluting her blood with the impurities her kidney failed to flush out. She needed to be on dialysis. In the long run, she needed at least one new kidney.
The honeymoon was over. There was considerable crying and praying that accompanied their arrival. Dialysis meant in those days braving the corridors of either PG or Suhrawardi and enduring the stench such public hospitals offered. She didn’t have a choice and endured. Her fever abated. Her glow was back after each and every session, but pregnancy was out of the question. Her mother offered her kidney but the tissues didn’t match, and Tirana’s life was till ahead. Imagine her suitors finding out she had only one and had to watch her diet for the rest of her life. The local specialist finally said that Farzana’s biological father’s family could be traced. There just might be a poor relative of some kind who could come to an arrangement for a kidney…..
Taufic’s conversation with her parent’s on this regard didn’t go well, not well at all. Her father just looked at her mom and kept quiet initially, and her Mom’s face went totally blank and pale at the same time. Obviously fighting her tears, she solemnly announced, ‘baba, it is not possible’ and went off to her room. The generally congenial Taufic really lost it. After half a minute of numbness, he asked her dad ‘Why Not?’ Then thinking that this might be a sensitive issue for him, he solemnly got up, stormed out of the living room and went to their bedroom and slammed the door shut behind him. Amma was sitting on her chair in the corner of the room, obviously morose, shaking, and crying her heart out. Even during the wedding, she was somewhat stoic. Taufic had never seen her or even assumed her to be this vulnerable or even emotional. Taking a deep breadth, he started, ‘I know it’s hard, but she is your daughter and her life is at stake. She can’t be on dialysis forever. Can’t you help us? Her father must have some relatives somewhere. Look, you don’t have to do anything. Just give me a lead or two and I’ll do the rest. Think of Farzana. She is really suffering’.
Amma looked at his face, this time her body having in violent sobs and tears. She just said, “Baba, please forgive me, but that’s not possible’. This time Taufic also started crying. Farzana over the past two and a half years had given him so much peace of mind and a feeling of happiness, Taufic didn’t know such feelings existed. He was in love with her head over heals and the prospect of losing her in the long run was NOT an option. The same question came out, this time in very high decibels, ‘WHY NOT??? What can be more valuable than the life of your daughter???” There was a gentle tap on the door. ‘Open the door, its Baba’. Taufic, coming back to his senses and realizing the scene he just created, timidly opened the door and kept his head low. Baba gently took his hand and guided him towards the bed; they both sat down next to amma’s chair. Amma had started wiping her tears with the edge of her sari and was trying to compose herself. As gentle as ever, baba simply said, ‘Nilu, Taufic should now.’ The crying started all over again, and Taufic, bewildered kept looking from Baba to Maa and finally asked, ‘Know what? Please tell me.”
Both Baba and Maa were engaged to be married in February of ’71. But the war broke out and all the wedding plans were temporarily put on hold. They were both student of Rajshahi University, where they had met. She was from Kushtia and him from Jessore. After weeks of tearing at his conscience, he finally joined the Mukti Bahini and disappeared. There would be occasional messages of his activities and what he was doing. She was just happy that he was alive. In the meantime Kushtia was overrun by the Pakistani army. The army camp was just five minutes away and a sense of fear permeated the neighborhood. One Cornel Belayet was in charge, occasionally seen puttering about in town in an open jeep, mustached and sun glassed, the quintessential army officer in charge. Somehow she had caught his attention while she was hanging her clothes in the balcony to dry and he was passing by. He made an appearance in the household that same evening and made some polite enquiries about the family. He was pretty keen on Nilu, ‘Bohat accha larki hai apko’, he said to his dad. Sensing the direction the conversation was going, he informed the colonel that she was already engaged, in fact, the ‘aqd’ ceremony had already taken place and once things were back to normal, he would formally take her to Jessore. The ‘aqd’ was a total lie of course, but the Colonel was dejected no doubt. He literally turned red on the face, said a very formal ‘Khoda Haafez’ and left. He was back two weeks later. He had made some inquiries and found out that the fiancé was a Mukti Joddha. He had to pick her up for questioning about his whereabouts. There was hardly any questioning. Initially there was a lot of physical harassment, but when his coaxing was not getting him anywhere and he finally lost it. He kept slapping her and started tugging at her sari. She was returned two days later, broken in body and spirit, eyes sunken beyond recognition, and she refused to speak for days. Colonel Belayet was eventually taken to a POW camp in India and he was the father of Farzana.
Farzana had no clue about her parentage. They had uprooted themselves for her sake and started another life in Dhaka to protect her. Besides, which girl would have a normal life knowing of her violent conception?
The silence in the bedroom was eerie and deadly. Amma’s face had turned to stone, Abba had an arm on Taufic’s shoulder and his eyes were watery. Taufic had gone totally blank.
The story continued. Farzana was born premature in December, a miracle baby in certain ways since she was not expected to survive. Mom, now unofficially a ‘birongona’ had tried to kill herself or at various occasions tried to starve the baby to death. But Farzana’s nani persevered. When Baba came to see her on the 20th of December, he kind of knew already what had happened. The baby, tiny as ever, was being fed with a dropper by an ayah, Nilu in a post natal depression, totally refused to even touch the baby and had been in her own state of self-rejection. Abba, stayed on, a week later took Nilu as his wife and took the baby and went off to Jessore. They would move to Dhaka a year later. It was in fact Abba who took Farzana in the palms of his hands and placed it on Amma’s lap for the first time. Tarana was born five years later.
Taufic just came home and found Farzana resting on the bed. He just lied down next to her held on tightly and started crying.
There was a happy ending at the end. Tarana insisted that she donate one of hers and the tissues matched this time. The whole family went off to Singapore where the transplant was successfully completed. And Tarana was married off after all. Apparently Taufic’s colleague from work, Shabbir had met her during their wedding and while not exactly smitten, had been in touch ever since. He had been updated all along of the saga of Farzana and her health. In fact he thought she was a heroine of some sort for the sacrifice she was making for her step-sister. Only that she wasn’t as fair as Farzana……