Ding dong! Ding dong!
“Who is this at this hour!”
Shafiq muttered in his irritated voice, but after opening the door he was astounded, perhaps a little nervous too. Rubina! Why! Rubina was supposed to stay at her mother’s with Sakib.
“Why are you asking?”
“No, I mean you came back. Were you not supposed to stay at your mother’s place? And where is Sakib?”
“He didn’t want to come, so I left him with Rinita.”
Rinita was Rubina’s niece, her only brother’s only daughter.
Rubina looked amazed as she eyed Shafiq.
“Why on earth are you wearing my kitchen apron?”
“I was in the kitchen, was trying to cook something.”
“Why? I cooked dinner and I told you so.”
Shafiq was really embarrassed as Rubina had indeed told him more than once that she had cooked beef and lentils for the night. Shafiq scampered for an answer. He could not obviously disclose to Rubina that he’d invited Sweta over to have dinner with him. How could he tell her that Sweta liked shrimp and he’d gone all the way to Agora to fetch king-size shrimp for her. It was impossible to tell Rubina that he had planned a date in her absence. Shafiq was really worried now, for Sweta wouldn’t know that Rubina had returned rather untimely. If she arrived a little early, it would be a disaster. He needed to send her a message immediately. But he couldn’t even move an inch as Rubina seemed to be inspecting him with a suspicious gaze. He also had to manufacture a plausible reason as to why he had the kitchen apron on! At his wit’s end, Shafiq suddenly began to mumble, “I felt like having something else, I don’t feel like eating beef, so I bought some shrimp. It’s all so coincidental that you have come back! We haven’t spent any time together in recent years.”
This was not the Shafiq she had known lately. Nor was Rubina convinced. All the same, now that she was back, she went to the bedroom to change out of her dust stained suit into something more comfortable. With a sigh of relief, having been freed from her glare, Shafiq hurriedly texted Sweta, asking her to drop the dinner plan as Rubina had come back. He felt awkward to be writing this, for it was his invitation; but then there was no other solution to this. The message was delivered but there was no reply from Sweta. Usually, her one-liners came quickly. In a fix yet keeping a plain face, Shafiq continued with cleaning the shrimp.
Much as he’d like to keep away such thoughts, yet Shafiq vividly remembered the first day Rubina had cooked shrimp in coconut milk. It was the best dish he’d ever had, and there wasn’t any denying that Rubina was indeed an excellent cook. Her beef recipes would always turn out to be a delicacy. Shafiq was inadvertently trying to remember the recipe that Rubina had followed for the shrimp malaikari. He tried to give his best but couldn’t really concentrate, greatly upset as he was with himself. He was also kind of feeling low, a sense of being caught up in something that had gone awry.
“Jano, today Rinita asked me what happened to Babu, and why he cannot talk like other kids”, said Rubina as she wafted into the kitchen in her silk kaftaan.
Babu was Sakib’s pet name that Rubina called him by.
“Did you tell her?”
“Matha kharap! Are you crazy? How can I tell a five-year-old that her cousin is a differently abled child? Will she even understand?”
“Kids understand many things these days. They have super ego like adults.”
“Arre wah, you are talking like a psychologist. What does a child know of super ego?”
“Why? Didn’t Sakib say something the other day?”
“Yes he did. He said that Abbu and Ammu are so very different, and he believes it’s not good for so different people to stay together. What is the big deal in that?”
“Bina, please try to understand. Sakib may be an autistic child, but he is very intelligent and understanding. Sometimes I think he understands even more than we do.”
Bina was Rubina’s name given by Shafiq in the first few days of their marriage. She was literally the flute of his life, the music she produced in the early bliss of conjugality. Days were different then. They even thought of having a second child sometimes, but did not dare to. Everything had changed since the problem with Sakib was diagnosed.
“Do we really belong to two different poles? Is that what you think too? I don’t think so. We have been together all these years without any significant quarrel.”
That’s true, thought Shafiq. He was a teacher at a renowned public university, and Rubina was a lawyer-cum-social worker. Her forte lay in working with women and children mostly. She’d be busy the whole day, but since Sakib’s problems surfaced Rubina had cut down on outside engagements to pay more attention to the child. These days she rarely went out. She’d turned one of the rooms in their apartment into her office and her clients met her here. Sweta was actually her client, and the first time Sweta came over to discuss her case Rubina was not in. The maid opened the door and she was face to face with Shafiq who was holding Sakib in his arms. Seeing Sakib cry and try to scratch Shafiq’s face, she came to his aid. Sakib stopped all of a sudden staring into the stranger, and in a short while Sweta managed to make him smile. Women can work magic, Shafiq had thought. He always wondered how Rubina managed to control the child even in the presence of her clients. Now this woman showed the same ability. Perhaps child rearing came naturally to women, he’d thought and reasoned. Shafiq eyed her for the first time. She was tall, had a pale face with sharp nose and thin lips. She looked very pretty in her long silky hair that was neatly done with front locks.
Shafiq usually kept a professional demeanour with people who came to meet Rubina, but this time he couldn’t resist from asking the lady why she was looking for his wife. Sweta was a little hesitant, but then she told him she wanted divorce from her husband who’d would beat her quite often, and wasn’t letting her work even though she had a decent job.
Poor woman! How can anyone be so insensitive to beat up a woman like her? Shafiq thought! Sweta had since started visiting their apartment regularly. She was fond of Rubina, but Shafiq understood that she was not less interested in him either. More often than not she’d enter their living room and spend time with Sakib. If Shafiq was in, which he usually was, as his classes usually got over before noon and he came home for lunch, she’d have little chats with him as well. Slowly and gradually she became fonder of the lawyer’s husband, and even after her divorce she continued coming to their place. Rubina took it positively as whenever Sweta came, Sakib seemed happy and stayed calm. Sakib seemed to love her, and Shafiq wondered who between the father and the son actually longed for Sweta’s visit more. He was increasingly being taken over by forbidden imaginations.
Lately, Sweta had started visiting him at his department. Shafiq did not like it much, because he had a good reputation as a teacher. Besides, most of his colleagues were familiar with Rubina, and it was always at the back of his mind that word could reach home. Sweta however seemed to be getting desperate by the day. She shut the door of Shafiq’s personal chamber behind her one day, and with shut eyes, extended her arms towards him. It was a long kiss, not quite something Shafiq was used to in his domestic space with Bina. He was somewhat alarmed, but at the same time he could not evade the intoxication that lay in Sweta’s thin lips shining with a light fragrant gloss. How can a man spend a lifetime with one woman, he thought. After all, here was an independent woman on whom he wasn’t thrusting himself in any way. This was his lucky chance to know the love of another woman in his life.
Ding dong! Ding dong!
A cold wave went down Shafiq’s spine, even as it shook him out of his train of reminiscences. Has Sweta missed his text somehow? Has she arrived? Oh God, please! Rubina, drying her hair with a towel, went to open the door. Standing in the hallway, Shafiq was sweating like hell and cursing his luck. He was almost on the verge of collapsing when Rubina returned with a flower bouquet, brimful of joy, and handed over to Shafiq a card on which was inscribed in Sweta’s recognisably big hand, “Happy anniversary to you!”
Shafiq had altogether forgotten that it was their marriage anniversary, and Rubina had returned perhaps to give him a surprise. She must have informed Sweta. He heard Rubina’s cheerful voice in the other room, “Cholo, you don’t have to cook anymore. Let’s have dinner outside. I have invited Sweta too, along with her new boyfriend!”
Sabiha Huq is Professor of English at Khulna University