Struck dumb

by Tanvir Malik

Struck-dumbRATNA jiggled the key from left to right; then right to left; and then left to right again. The lock didn’t open. She pushed the door and pulled the handle. The stubborn lock still didn’t grant her admission. ‘Dhattari, damn!’ she cursed.
A multitude of shopping bags — four in all — lay at her side. They had all the groceries she needed for the week ahead. There were the bread and the peanut butter which Tahmid couldn’t do without; the granola for Bushra’s growing health consciousness, the chicken for the tanduri she had promised Moyeen the previous night. She had had a mind to buy some tarot stolons for herself from the shop but had decided not to. It would have resulted in five bags altogether and her back pain had been acting up of late.
She gave the lock another go. Still no luck. She wondered why the key had betrayed her. She gave it an angry look. Within seconds the matter presented itself : she had the wrong key. She had taken out one of the two silver keys from her key-ring before heading for Madina Halal Meat Shop an hour ago. The right key was sitting in the warmth of her apartment on the twenty-fourth floor even as she was freezing in the cold.
The late fall windchill had set in. The trees were all bare and the sight of bounding squirrels here and there was becoming less frequent. Finding the temperature minus one this morning, she had summoned all her clothing accessories to action. Thus, covered from head to toe, she ventured into the cold.
It was coming up to 11. She had wanted to marinate the chicken once she was home. Thanks to her own stupidity now she could not even get in. She had to wait for some stranger to come by and open the door. It had better be a deshi. At least, she could confidently thank him. A white guy was difficult for her to say thank you to.
‘Stuck in the cold?’ A voice boomed from behind.
She nodded, not looking, not understanding fully what was communicated. It was a white man.
‘Not a prob. Lemme open it for ya’.
She gathered all her bags and got ready. As soon as the door opened, she would squirm her way in and run.
‘There you go. Open sesame,’ the man laughed.
Ratna darted in, saying thank you almost inaudibly. Did he hear? She didn’t want to know. Her only instinct was to get into the elevator alone and disappear.

***
THE thought of living in a far-off country back in 1999 — the year she got married — would have sounded quite outlandish to Ratna. But after Bushra was born, Moyeen applied for immigration. He called it ‘the passport to heaven for our children’. Ratna couldn’t say she agreed with him. When finally in 2004 they got their visas, a chill went down her spine. While he was busy preparing for the trip — buying warm clothes, renting out their apartment in Dhaka, paying off debts etc — the thought of leaving near and dear ones behind to start life all over again in a faraway land ate away at her.
And then there was English. She could never warm up to the alien tongue. At school she detested the subject and flunked it as a rule and now she was going to live in a country where everybody spoke it. Sometimes the ironies of fate seemed to be crueler than Canadian winter.
The evening of their leaving for Canada was still etched in her mind. All her family and in-laws came to see them off at the airport. Bushra was four and Tahmid hadn’t yet been born. After bouts of crying they boarded the plane. The moment the plane took off, her stomach churned and she started retching. Moyeen held a sick bag before her mouth. Although she didn’t throw up on the plane, she knew she was in for a bumpy ride.
Bumpy it sure was. Finding a place to live in, getting Bushra admitted to a school, finding a job for Moyeen — one that involved making coffee at Tim Horton’s — the first two years passed in a vortex of worries and trials. Then Tahmid was born. The next year Moyeen got a full-time position at Protech, a computer firm in downtown Toronto. Until then Moyeen had accompanied her everywhere they went. Now she had to start doing everything on her own. That was a problem.
‘Mum, I’m gonna be late today,’ Bushra said standing at the door, ready to join her father in the car downstairs.
‘Keno?’ Ratna asked.
‘Why?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, mum, you always forget. Today’s Rafia’s birthday, remember? We’re going to Sammy’s after school. Her dad’s gonna drop me off. Bye.’
Ratna was going to say something in protest but Bushra had already left. Hadn’t Rafia’s birthday been the previous week? As much as she wanted to, she wouldn’t dare ask her daughter about it. First, she was going to throw a fit saying it was unfortunate that her own mother didn’t believe her and, second, she would unleash a verbal barrage in English. She already had trouble getting her children to speak Bangla. Lemon squeezed too much turns bitter, went a Bangla proverb.
Tahmid was still at his breakfast.
‘Hurry up! School, late.’
Tahmid laughed out. ‘Mum, could you not speak English?’
‘Keno?’
‘It sounds so funny.’
Ratna didn’t know what to say. She took his satchel bag in her hand.
‘Did you remember to do your homework?’
‘Yes, I finished by myself last night. The last time I asked you for help you totally screwed,’ he made a face.
She put her jacket on and sat down to tie her shoelaces. He’s only seven, she thought.
‘Come now, let’s start.’ She held his hand
The ground was covered with snow. Occasional grass patches could still be seen. A few more days and they would also disappear. There would only be white sheets of snow piled upon each other under a sullen, grey sky.
She remembered the winter in Bangladesh. She and Moyeen would sit with their backs to the soft morning sun on their roof. He would have the morning paper in his hand and she would hold a bowl of muri mixed with sliced onion and chanachur in mustard oil. They would talk for hours. Crows would perch on four corners of the railing, cawing to claim their share of the snack.
She sighed.

***
‘3360 Lawdon. You go?’ Ratna asked the driver.
‘What intersection?’
She knew the number but what was the intersection’s name? Moyeen had told her but she couldn’t remember.
‘Do you know what intersection you’re headed for?’
‘Yeah,’ she tried to recall, looking at his face.
‘The name, lady? The intersection?’ the driver gestured.
She racked her brains again but still the name escaped her.
‘No remember. Later ask.’ She turned and moved inside the bus.
‘Okey-dokey,’ the driver shrugged.
Once seated, she dialled Moyeen but the calls ended up in voice message. Where would she get off now?
Nothing like this would’ve happened had Moyeen dropped her off in front of the shop that he always did. This morning he had a three-hour-long meeting . And she couldn’t drive.
She hated taking the bus for one thing there was the waiting in the cold and, for another, her language skills were invariably put to the test.
She kept her eyes out through the window. Suddenly, the words ‘Sonar Bangla’ signposted caught her eye. She pressed the button.
Going up to the sign, to her utter chagrin, she found it was 2245 Lawdon Road. ‘Of course, it’s Sonar Bangla Motors,’ she muttered to herself, ‘how could I fail to notice? Now I’ll have to walk to number 3360 I guess’.
She felt stupid inside. She couldn’t even recognise the place she’d been coming to for years? But back in the day she was different; she was known for her intelligence and promptness. Her friends always turned to her for advice. If the cultural function at college was in short of a female voice for the chorus, her name came first. She won the first prize twice at school in extempore speech competitions.
Now she had difficulty believing she was that same person. So much had changed. So many years had gone by. She had grown so much older. But not wiser? she asked herself.

***
THE Christmas tree towered over the open space at the centre of Eaton Centre. Decorated with giant baubles and lights, it looked magnificent. However, there was something that made Ratna a little uncomfortable about it, although she couldn’t put her finger on it.
The lounge had tired shoppers sprawled on the beanbags, sipping coffee or munching chips. The massive HD TV screen had the picture of a fireplace. The escalators and capsule elevators went up and down tirelessly.
Ratna was there with her friend Lubna. She worked in an old home. Divorced once, she was in a live-in relationship with a white guy named Andy.
‘I think you’re worrying too much — and for nothing too,’ Lubna dipped the straw into her chocolate smoothie.
‘Am I?’
‘Of course. This is Canada, Ratna. You can’t restrict anyone’s —’
‘I don’t want to. It’s just that she’s too young. She doesn’t know right from wrong.’
‘It’s different here — children mature quicker.’
A group of teenage girls passed them, all wearing tops that had low necklines.
‘I just think it’s not right, you know – her mixing freely with boys and all.’
‘Nonsense! She’s almost sixteen now, right? After three years she might decide to move out.’
‘God forbid!’
Ratna wished she had possessed her friend’s nonchalance. But it was easy for Lubna — she was not a mother. She chose not to be one. Ratna, on the other hand, was in a different boat.
‘And how’s Tahmid doing?’
‘Ar bolo na, don’t ask. Didn’t you hear they’ve started sex education from Grade Three?’
‘There are good sides to that.’
‘Good sides! They’re even teaching homosexuality to kids Tahmid’s age, even younger. What if my son, influenced by all that, turns… you know…,’ she couldn’t finish the sentence.
Lubna Laughed.
‘Anything funny ?’ Ratna was a bit miffed.
Lubna shook her head and came closer. ‘Why don’t you have a talk with Bushra?’
‘Don’t you think I tried that?’ Ratna stirred her hot chocolate unmindfully.’ She doesn’t listen. She insults me about my knowledge of English. Once when I’d raised my voice at her a little, she threatened to call 911’.
Lubna put her hand on her friend’s back.
‘I don’t know what I’m going to do. Bushra’s too busy. Tahmid avoids me. Their father’s at work all day. He leaves in the morning, comes back at night and, after having supper, turns in early. When I enter the bedroom finishing my chores, he’s already snoring’.
‘A woman’s got to talk, right?’ She suppressed a sob. ‘At times I feel I’m going to explode — all my unspoken thoughts are going to erupt.’
‘We came here for a good life. Now I have everything I ever wanted but at what expense? My children hate me. One day they’re going to leave me. I might as well die.’
Ratna looked up at the Christmas tree again. Beautiful though it was, it had an oppressive quality to it. It was like a giant that had a stunning exterior but once you got near, it tried to dwarf you with its massive proportions. She couldn’t say anything in its praise; she had been struck dumb.

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