A Family Affair.
The first thing Chadni noticed about Bangladesh was the dust.
The moment she stepped off the plane, it was everywhere: in her eyes, her nose, her mouth, her sun kissed skin. It was as though someone had taken a paintbrush and coated her body in one broad stroke, causing her to squint and making the already unpleasant taste in her mouth palpable.
But the dust wasn’t the only thing making Chadni nauseous. The blend of foreign sights and smells that greeted her as she surveyed the scene at Hazrat Shahjalal Airport in Dhaka were complicit as well, and made the scenario all too real: she was here, really here, in her birthplace for the first time since departing some twenty years ago.
Feeling the solid ground beneath her feet — ground that was thousands of miles away from home — brought forth a fleeting sensation akin to excitement, but it was quickly replaced by the dread that had persisted in the pit of her stomach for the past week.
In Islam, the dead are to be buried within 24 hours. By the time Chadni received word of her father’s death, it was too late to make it in time for the funeral, not when she lived halfway across the world. The decision to return to Bangladesh to pay respects was not an easy one: in the end, she threw caution to the wind and bought roundtrip plane tickets.
As she made her way towards the exit, she was struck with a most peculiar feeling looking at the many faces milling about the wide halls of the airport: every tanned visage mirrored her own, as though any one of them could be a cousin here, an uncle there.
But it couldn’t be. They were all strangers, women wrapped in saris and men in mismatched suits and even lungis, who held no qualms over brazenly staring at the towering young lady who stood alone, with a gleaming golden hoop adorning her septum.
At five foot eleven, she was tall for a girl, let alone a Bengali girl. She was clad in loose-fitting black trousers with cheetah print rear pockets, and a navy t-shirt revealing a thin strip of brown midriff. She might as well have been wearing a sign on her forehead that screamed, I don’t belong here.
Her musing was interrupted by a harried-looking mother in an ordinary brown-and-red polka dot sari, with silver-streaked hair and a howling toddler in tow. The woman shoved past Chadni, pausing briefly to shoot a disapproving look at the narrow strip of exposed waist. The dreadful feeling clawing inside her stomach intensified.
She took a deep breath, sucking the air in and waiting until she stepped out into the glare of the setting sun to exhale.
It was time to visit Dadu.
A stout, fragile-looking elderly woman who dwarfed Chadni by nearly a foot cracked open the door. Warm light from behind her spilled over the gangly American who stood awkwardly framing the arched doorway. There was a moment of silence as they stared at one another, until recognition dawned on the old woman’s face and she threw open the door.
“Chadni beti. Tumi cholai ashto.” Her granddaughter had arrived.
With surprising strength, the woman lifted herself on her toes to place small hands firmly upon Chadni’s shoulders. Tears spilled down a face lined with wrinkles as she peered up beaming at her natani’s face for the first time in decades.
“Assalamu alaikum, Dadu.”
Chadni couldn’t help but smile back at the genuine happiness that radiated from her paternal grandmother. She hesitated as Dadu beckoned her inside but brought herself to step forward over the doorstep.
Shortly after the birth of Chadni’s younger sister Laboni in Bangladesh, the two siblings and their mother Ammu had fled to America, cutting all ties to life in their native country.
There was no way to put it lightly: her father Nafiul was a violent man, whose nasty temper cut as deep as the marks he frequently left across Ammu’s face. Nafiul was also a recurrent patron of Mymensingh’s brothel, a seedy dwelling at the outskirts of the city they resided in.
He often stumbled home at dawn with the smell of stale perfume lingering on his clothes. As a child, Chadni would wait until the sky would lighten for the familiar clattering in the hall. Creeping out of the bedroom that she shared with Dadu, Chadni would witness her grandmother locking the front door after her father’s arrival and leading him back into the bedroom to join his wife.
This routine was never spoken about.
Nafiul was at the brothel that night, in the arms of another woman while his wife went into labor with their second child. Dadu was at home looking after Chadni, who had come down with a fever. Ammu was alone when she gave that last push, bringing Laboni into the world with a shriek that rang to the beat of her daughter’s own piercing cries.
His absence during her birth was the final straw: two weeks later, Nafiul lurched back to their home after his usual debauchery — but this time, he found the place barren, with not a trace of his wife and children, and all of their belongings gone.
It was only last year that Dadu had mysteriously found a way to reconnect with them. That evening was seared into Chadni’s memory.
She had been lying on her belly at the condo she shared with Laboni and Ammu, scribbling notes into a journal while keeping one eye on the television. Laboni was curled up in a chair by the kitchen island, nose buried in a novel when the telephone rang.
Neither of them made moves to answer it.
The phone went silent before chirping to life a second time. Sighing, Laboni stretched a hand to grasp the receiver.
“Hello?” she demanded. Chadni paid no attention.
“Chadni.” The elder sister looked up to glimpse Laboni, eyes wide and shining with tears dangerously close to falling. “Chadni, it’s her. Dadu is on the phone.”
Now, the two-room flat on Lane 3 in Old Dhaka, where she, Ammu, Nafiul and Dadu had once lived together was almost exactly as she remembered except for an assortment of mismatched furniture that replaced the typical Bangladeshi wooden furnishings that once stood.
When she was younger, Chadni would line up the wobbly stools that sat by the foyer and leap from one to the other, usually miscalculating the jump and spilling to the ground in a mess of tears.
Dadu had remained with her son after her daughter-in-law fled with the children: she alone was privy to his downward spiral following the disappearance of his family.
“He never stopped visiting that place, you know.”
Dadu spoke mournfully in Bangla, filling in the blanks of the years following their departure. Nafiul had clung to his wretched ways even after their departure.
It jolted Chadni to learn that her father had met his demise after leaving the brothel one night. Dadu had found him the next morning sprawled meters away from the flat’s entrance.
His heart had stopped.
Though the trip was planned for just two weeks, life in Bangladesh settled itself comfortably around Chadni.
Every morning for the duration of her stay, she and her grandmother took to huddling upon plush cushions in the sitting room, swapping details of one another’s lives that they had missed out on.
Their hands would wrap around steaming cups of chai, an activity that had quickly become tradition. Dadu made her tea with a blend of cinnamon, ginger, and black tea leaves, leaving out the traditional alachi. Chadni was touched that her grandmother had remembered her dislike for the spice from all those years ago.
As Dadu recounted the details of a life squandered caring for her adult son, Chadni studied her face and couldn’t help but notice the wistful tone in her voice as she reminisced about the past.
Apart from explaining the circumstances of his death, Dadu had hardly touched on the damage her son had inflicted upon his family. Instead, she plied Chadni with tales of her father’s carefree childhood and the years after they had fled, as if his wife and daughters’ existence was a mere blip in the story of his life.
But Chadni knew they were dancing around a topic that Dadu wanted to bring up. At any hint that came up in conversation, Chadni would deflect and change the subject.
After sipping their chai, they took walks around the congested streets of Old Mymensingh. Chadni, having only spent the first six years of her life in Bangladesh, was stunned to find that her surroundings triggered long-forgotten memories.
There was a local park located by the Brahmaputra River that she remembered visiting as a toddler. They passed the rusted red gates guarding her old elementary school: she could faintly remember the sting of her first-grade teacher’s ruler, striking down on the sweaty palms of students who failed to answer questions correctly.
Striding along the densely populated roads with no regard for separating pedestrians from traffic, she felt the weight of passing rickshaw drivers who stared even more intensely than the people from the airport.
The afternoon before she was set to return home was when they made the trip to the graveyard.
There, Chadni and Dadu stood ankle-deep in weeds that were in desperate need of maintenance, in a cemetery littered with hundreds of graves. Some were unmarked, save for a perimeter of bamboo fencing the dimensions of a human body.
Dadu had finished reciting prayers while Chadni shifted from one foot to the other uncomfortably when it finally came.
She was silent.
“Chadni, amar jaan,” Dadu tried again. Chadni felt her body stiffen, knowing what was next.
“Jaan, tumi balo mei na? Balo takleh, amar chele ta ke maap koro felo,” Dadu pleaded.
There it was, the truth behind why she pleaded for Chadni to return. Her grandmother wanted forgiveness for her son.
She could not bear to accept the damage that both she and Nafiul had inflicted on Chadni’s family — he with his hotheaded temper and adultery, and she by brushing it aside and ultimately enabling him. Instead, Dadu chose to turn a blind eye, and opted to beg for mercy years later so that her own heart could rest in peace.
Her refusal to deride or even acknowledge Nafiul’s behavior was one of the many reasons that drove Ammu to flee. It was why Chadni had agonized for days over her own decision to make the trip; she knew very well where her grandmother stood on the topic of her son after that phone call last year.
She feared that the fond relationship the two had built over the weeks would color her judgement, but the answer came surprisingly easily.
“No.” She heard her own voice, emotionlessly speaking it into existence. “No.”
The old woman’s knees gave way and the strength that she had shown for weeks crumbled as she collapsed to the ground, soiling her white kameez with grass stains as she howled before her dead son’s grave.
Chadni turned away, staring fixedly at the blank slab of stone that was the only indication that someone who had played some role in her life, long ago, was now buried beneath her.
Though Dadu lay sobbing at her feet, unable to reconcile with her anguish without clemency from her natani, the wailing was drowned out by an echo in Chadni’s mind: the memory of her own mother’s tears, a sorrowful sound that Chadni had become familiar with as a little girl.
She had lain awake listening for many nights in the two-bedroom flat all those years ago, until the sound stifled itself moments before the clattering that announced her father’s return began.
Her own tears began to fall. Though she gazed at her father’s grave, it was Ammu she was thinking of.
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This short story was submitted as part of a competition organized by Burnt Roti Magazine, a South Asian lifestyle publication. Although it was not selected, I wanted to share it as part of my work on Medium.