The woman who had many names

“Deleir Khan has bought a new mare and a Bengali woman.”

This news murmured through the square where villagers gathered to wag their tongues. People jostled and bustled, busier than on the holiest of holidays. Gossip was the only entertainment in my remote village. The favorite subjects were horses, dogs, and women. The latest juicy topic stirred their bored souls to life.

On my way home from school, I heard them chortling. Men spoke at the public places, and women addressed passersby from the doorways.

“Have you seen her? I hear she’s beautiful,” one woman clucked, holding a child in her arms.

“I saw her. She is a desirable beauty,” added another.

“You two harp on about her beauty, but what has it gotten her?” a third woman knotted her wrinkled hands and said, “Her looks have made her nothing but a slave. Bangladesh defamed Pakistan, and now this Bengali girl will malign our village. May Allah save us.” She drew a prayer symbol.

“Speak low. The Khans’ boy is coming,” one cautioned and nodded her head at me. A sly smile crawled across her face as I approached.

I listened intently but pretended indifference. They lowered their voices. I was twelve but my parents didn’t like my interest in the adult world. I guess the woman also doubted my innocence. Deleir was my uncle, so I was curious to know. I looked back after passing them, and they had resumed their animation.

Outside the mosque, at the center of the village, a group of graybeards sat under the wide- spread branches of a banyan tree. Heavy smoke plumes drifted from their hookahs, spiraling in the air. I heard much of what they said. Talk of Deleir Khan’s libido filled through the smoke-laden air, as loud in my ears as their smoke was heavy in my nose. Had I been further away, I would’ve bet the banyan tree was on fire. To avoid them, I took a different route. I saw Bhola, the madman, sitting with his back to the mosque pillar. He raised his hand to stop me. I shuddered at seeing his jagged black fingernails, as the flies swarmed him like rotting fruit.

“What is that?” He pointed to the inscription on a wall.

“Allah’s the greatest.” I stammered.

“Yes, but beware of His men.” He put his hand down, allowing me to go. I picked up my pace until I reached the old brick street.

On the main street, I saw Ruboo riding the bullock cart. Old Man Ruboo, always gloomy and grumpy, was the most vocal of all. He stopped his cart at the front of a shop and climbed down, shouting, “Deleir Khan needs to set a standard instead of fucking around with a Bengali woman.” His controlled face of ugly disapproval would’ve frightened a wild pig.

Nasty jokes assaulted me as I hurried home. I passed two giggling girls who taunted me, “Hey, Mahi, congratulations on your new aunt—a Bengali aunt!”

Pushing through the front door of my home, I saw my mother sweeping.

I blurted, “Mother, is it true? Has uncle bought a Bengali woman?” I looked down at my feet, unable to meet her eyes.

“What?” Regaining her composure, she returned to sweeping. “Yes, your uncle has brought another wife home, that’s all,” she muttered and turned her face away, still blushing red.

So it was true, I had a new aunt! The thought of a Bengali aunt fascinated me. Determined to sneak a glance, I dashed toward the yard wall where a window provided a view of Uncle Deleir’s house. Mother blocked my way. “Go to your room and do your homework,” mother shouted.

I trailed off to the house and waited for father to return home.

The night grew colder, and I sat near the fireplace and gazed at the burning coals until late, watching the flames lick the brickwork. When father arrived, he sat quietly in his favorite chair. Perhaps he saw my hand tremble on the arm of the chair with my gaze fixed on the fireplace.

I gathered my courage to break the silence. “Baba, are wives for sale like animals?”

“Who told you that?” His voice felt sharper than any blade.

“Everyone in the village says Uncle Deleir has purchased a Bengali wife.”

“Well, your uncle may need a woman to take care of his new mare. You know, animals bond with some people and can’t live without them. I think this might be the case with your uncle’s new horse.” I wondered whether father was not ready to accept her as his sister-in-law.

He rose slowly, placed his hands on his hips and twisted side to side, and I heard his spine crunch like the pleasure of tired hands cracking knuckles. He walked to his bedroom, leaving me by the fireplace. I went to bed as well, but thoughts rushed through my head, driving sleep away. Uncle’s dog barked at midnight. Either the mare or the woman had upset the dog.

In the morning, I lingered over my breakfast, and loitered in the doorway, trying to postpone my departure for school. Stories of my uncle would have spread like horses fleeing fire, and I dreaded confronting my schoolmates.

At school, boys approached with a lot of lewd teasing. I avoided them, but during lunch break that proved impossible. I stared at the ground as I ate, hoping they would go away.

“Mahi, your uncle is a womanizer, never happy with one woman,” Lal, a senior student, said as he nudged me.

“Now, he’s brought a Bengali woman, for a new taste, fresh from the city,” Bakshu, Lal’s friend, added.

“I guess it runs in your blood, boy. You look like a Bengali-woman type of guy yourself. Grow up fast. We want to hear your stories, too.” Lal laughed and strutted away with his gang. His laughter rang in my ears as he left.

The rest of the day was no better; I longed to go home. My heart pounded from shame. Uncle’s new wife was the talk of the school, from the classes to the washrooms.

Days passed, and still I hadn’t met my new aunt. Life in the village fell back into its usual rhythm; the topic grew stale. My uncle soon moved her to a hut near the animal farm. A large Bokul tree shaded her hut which, with the arrival of spring, turned lush with tiny red fruit. The tree was home to a group of monkeys. She worked alone all day. No one referred to her by name. She was “The Bengali Woman.” She piqued my curiosity, but no one introduced us.

* * *

One sweltering summer morning, I saw my Bengali aunt leading uncle’s mare, sheep, and goats out of his compound. Her black hair shone in the sun and waved in the slight breeze. Her dark clothes swathed like rags around bird-thin limbs. She was barefoot as she led the mare by the reins, yet she walked with grace.

Sheep were easy to lead. I knew them to be the most docile of creatures. But goats were another story. They reminded me of Old Man Ruboo, though not as ugly. The goats compliantly followed her. They trotted behind like faithful hounds instead of acting like the stubborn third cousins of mules.

There must be something special about this woman for her to have such an effect on the animals. I hurried to catch up.

When I got close, she looked down at me and asked, “Who are you?” Her gentle smile and musical voice made my heart beat faster. I had never seen such a woman in the village. Her dark eyes were radiant pools. I wanted to hug and welcome her, but formality forbade it.

“I’m Mahi, Deleir Khan’s nephew.”

“So, my nephew, too.” She smiled as she walked away.

* * *

The school year ended, and summer vacation begun. Early one morning, I saw my new aunt leading the sheep to pasture. I noticed the dog that barked so furiously the first night now followed in obedience.

“Can I come with you, aunty?”

“Please do. I would welcome your company.” Her black eyes radiated warmth.

We strode from the village, towards the pastures. When we arrived, she opened her hand-woven mat and placed it under an old thick gum tree. The meadow extended up to the hills. The leaves sang melodies. She held out her hand and said, “Come and sit in the shade. Are you interested in horses?”

“A little. Do you know much about them?” I asked.

“Oh yes, I have a gift for getting along with most animals.”

Over the next hour, she taught me more about horses than I thought anyone could. I found myself smiling and nodding. The timbre of her voice made everything interesting. I began to understand the secret of her success with animals. Even I would be helpless but to obey that musical voice.

“Aunt, what’s your name?”

“Laila.”

“Oh, I have a cousin named Laila! I didn’t know it was popular among Bengalis, too!”

“That’s not my birth name,” the aunt laughed, “your uncle gave it to me when he brought me here.”

Confused, I scrunched my brow. “What was it before my uncle named you?”

She paused, staring at my uncle’s mongrel. Her eyes glistened. “I’ve had many names. I don’t think you’d understand even if I tell you.”

“I will. I’m no longer a child. I’m twelve years old.”

She looked at me with a bleak face. “I’ve had more than twelve names.”

She got up to help the dog deal with a stubborn goat. I’d heard uncle grumble about what he called ‘That worthless mongrel. Don’t know why I even feed him.’ Yet now, after a few weeks with Aunt Laila, the worthless mongrel seemed to be a good sheepdog. The antics of the dog and goat made her laugh.

She returned with a beautiful mushroom in her hand. “You know it grows in wild soil. I’m like a mushroom.” Her voice was a whisper, her gaze soft and neutral. “It has no roots, no one owns it, and anyone can easily pick it. “

She gave me the wild mushroom. “If you put it on the fire for a minute, it’ll be ready for you.” Her gentle smile encompassed her eyes.

From that day forward, I never missed an opportunity to spend time with Aunt Laila. I was getting older, so I could make my own decisions, and my parents were busy tending our crops.

Aunt Laila and I became good friends. We spent many hours sitting in the shade, watching the sheep and talking. I felt a comfort in her presence I’d never felt before. Her poise and serenity formed an aura about her that drew the animals and me as well.

“Why did you make them your friends?” I asked, pointing at the livestock.

“Because they aren’t cruel. No hatred, no politics, no war and they don’t enslave their kin. Look at the dog, how he wags his old tail. Give him love, and in return, he’ll lick your feet.”

“But when we hate a person, we call him a dog or a bitch,” I replied.

“But some dogs still bite,” I said rubbing the old wound of a dog bite on my foot.

She smiled. “I wish all humans were more like dogs. They are simpler.”

“What about other animals?”

“All animals are better than humans. The more time you spend with them, the stronger the bond you form. Humans hate each other; they can’t live together for a long time.”

She called a young sheep over to us and stroked her wool.

“Soft, isn’t it?” said Aunt. “And what will we do with her? We will eat her to repay her for the love she has shown.”

The dog barked.

“A signal to go home,” Aunt sighed.

The dog led the flock homeward. We followed.

“Another day has gone.” Aunt looked toward the sun flickering like a dying candle.

* * *

One day, as we sat with the flock, I remembered everything she had told me on previous days.

“Auntie, please tell me more about your life. Why have you had so many names?”

She gazed toward a small solitary white cloud floating in the vast blue sky. Tears brimmed her eyes. She dabbed her face on a shirt corner and glanced away. “I’m sorry,” she said.

“You don’t need to be sorry. I made you cry.”

The tears continued, but she smiled and reached for my hands. She began her story in her quiet, musical voice.

“I’m a daughter of poverty. My memories are also poor, ones I don’t want to keep, but they won’t leave. I was born in a small Bangladesh village near Dhaka, then a part of Pakistan. My father often spoke of Karachi, a city far away, but full of opportunities. He worked for a man who grew jute while mother worked hard, too. Almost every day, we walked with her to the river where she’d wash our clothes by pounding them on rocks. Meanwhile, I watched over Mousa, my younger brother, to make sure he didn’t go into the deep water. Sometimes, the jute would not grow because the rains had failed. Then, father would have no work, and my family would go hungry.”

“What happened next, Auntie?”

Regaining her composure, she wiped her eyes and resumed. “The summer I turned nine no rain fell, and father couldn’t find work for months. We had bread now and then, and once a week, he’d somehow procure beans. But it was never enough.

“Then, Mousa became ill. Mother tried her best to feed and comfort him. I tried to make him laugh and made funny faces. He could barely keep his eyes open. I’m not even sure he could see me.”

She paused again to wipe once more at her cheeks.

“One morning, he couldn’t breathe. I put my hand to his cheek. His skin was cold. It chilled me more than the early morning river. I screamed. My parents came running and tried to bring him back to life, but…” Her face twisted in agony.

“We had no money for a funeral. Father buried Mousa in the dry, rocky ground. Mother held me so tight. I was afraid of losing her. They each said a few words about how he would now be at peace in heaven. Our wails were enough to make the gods cry.”

Aunt Laila paused, as if continuing was too painful. But then she squeezed my shoulder and got up. She called out to the sheep, and we walked back to the village.

Neither of us broke the silence until we arrived. “If you wish, I’ll tell you the rest of my story tomorrow.”

“I would be glad to hear it.”

I went to bed eager for the morning.

At dawn, I awakened to sheep bleating. Fearing that Aunt Laila had left me behind, I dashed out the door. I met her by the hill that formed a natural boundary between the pastures and the village.

“Your uncle told me that your parents object to you coming to the pasture with me. Perhaps they worry our friendship is becoming too close.”

“I’m able to choose my own friends. Besides, you are family. What could be wrong?”

She mussed my hair and spread her mat under the towering gum tree where we usually sat.

“Aunt Laila, will you continue your story, please?

She nodded. “Of course, just for you.” Aunt Laila closed her eyes and breathed deep. “Father had no work. One night, I heard him tell mother we would all die if we didn’t get out of that place. He told us about Karachi, a beautiful port city with lots of work. His cousin lived there who could find a job for Father. We started our journey from Dhaka to Karachi.”

She paused to collect herself, then continued. “We traveled on a cargo ship. It looked so small on the vast sea. We ate uncooked fish. Inside, the worst part was not the lifeless bodies rotting in the dark, or the buckets of urine stinging our eyes but the not knowing what waited for us at Karachi.”

Tears rolled down her cheeks. She didn’t speak for a few minutes. She smoothed her skirt and began again in a clear voice. “We took almost a month to reach Karachi. Father found a job at an old house near the port. Food was plentiful, but we never forgot the ocean.

“Our newfound life didn’t last. The movement to separate Bangladesh from Pakistan had spread hatred against Bengalis, and father lost his job. Hunger returned along with the spread of terror. Men murdered my father, mother, and cousin. But they spared me.”

“Oh, how terrible! How did you survive?” I asked.

My aunt closed her eyes and titled her head. “By satisfying their lust.” Her eyes opened again and drank in the blue sky as if trying to find her God.

“Since then, nothing’s changed. The first man soon sold me, and I’ve been purchased many times. Every buyer gave me a new name, to make me seem unsullied, I guess. Now I’m a wife to your uncle, and I may be the wife of another before long.”

There was much I did not understand about the intricacies of adult relationships. But I knew that my beautiful Aunt Laila had been hungry and hurt.

A song of a cuckoo at some distance brought me back. A faint glimmer of light flickered on the horizon, consumed by the approaching darkness within two heartbeats. That was the time for the wolves to gather amidst the shrubs and make their collective howl. We walked back to the village.

* * *

A week later, I went to Uncle Deleir’s home for buttermilk. When I reached the front door, I heard voices coming from my uncle’s room. It sounded like my uncle was negotiating.

“Ten thousand rupees is my last offer. I bought her for fifteen thousand,” Uncle’s tone was firm.

“No, that is too much. She is no longer young,” the stranger replied.

I went to Aunt Laila’s hut, but she wasn’t there. I searched everywhere. I returned to my Uncle’s room and peeped into a crack to see inside. I saw her squatted in the corner.

The man took money out of his pocket, wrapped in a piece of cloth and gave it to uncle, who counted each note.

Uncle rose from his chair, grabbed Aunt Laila by the arm, and shoved her toward the man. Her head was down and her hands were clasped as if in prayer. She said nothing. She simply kept her head bowed, inhaling deeply. When the business was finished, they walked out, with Aunt Laila trailing behind the stranger.

“Aunt Laila, are you leaving?” My tongue felt heavy in my mouth. I reached out and held her hands.

“I’m no longer Laila.”

The dog licked her feet, and she reached down to pet him. The stranger ordered the woman, now nameless again, to follow. She trailed behind him.

“Aunt Laila, please don’t go. You are Laila. You are Laila to me.” I sobbed.

Startled, she ran back to me, bowed to me, and spoke through tears, “I wish you a lifetime of wisdom and love.” Her lips pressed together as if it would hurt to smile. But she managed a smile for me, though her eyes spoke of sorrow yet to come. “Mahi, remember me,” she said. “I was your friend.”

“Hey bitch, come back,” the stranger shouted with a look of disgust.

She kissed my head and hurried back to him, then turned and waved again. Her hand hung like a dove suspended motionless on a frail tree. Her eyes hooded with fear and sorrow.

The villagers came out to watch Laila leave. She left without looking back. I watched her disappearing. Lost. Alone. Abandoned. No human tried to rescue her. Only the dog chased the stranger. He barked viciously as if to stir the people’s conscience.

The mare neighed. Her sound was different. It shrilled like a scream, but it was not enough to put the humans around me to shame. My heart yelled.

“She will die soon because now she’s the possession of a cruel man.” Ruboo, the old man, spoke.

“Die? When was she alive?” Bhola, the madman, cackled.

Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is a fiction writer from Pakistan known for weaving Asian culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters.

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AB# 145

I Feel Nothing

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