Maryam moved the wooden ladle in the liquid white wheat. She pressed the viscous white between her thumb and index finger to check if the texture was right.
A clay pot was heating on fire. She pushed the sticks into the maw of the oven. The monsoon rain had rendered the sticks moist, forcing Maryam to blow into the oven, so as not to let the fire die down. The thick smoke made her eyes water.
She stirred the liquid one more time before scooping out some on the hot clay pot. Maryam used the back of a spoon to spread the liquid evenly. The air on the pot escaped, leaving tiny holes on the surface of the chitoi. When the edges had become hard enough, she turned it over for the other side to cook.
“Does Shafiq come home regularly?” Rehana asked.
Maryam’s mind wandered as she peered into the drizzling haze. The rain had started early morning and had been continuing since. The surrounding paddy fields were half-submerged. The water moved to her house, almost reaching the open courtyard. Her mind blanked at the thought of another flood. The river was barely a couple of miles away. If it rained over the next few days, it would break the dykes flooding their village.
“He was home a couple of week ago.” Maryam pierced the middle of the chitoi with an iron spoke and lifted it on to a plate.
Maryam was never sure if she liked her sister enough. Rehana was a demanding woman, the eldest child in the family. Their father had indulged her when she was growing up. Rehana still commanded the respect the eldest child in the family deserved. Maryam was often irritated with her domineering streak. But she felt obliged to her sister as well. For days, when Shafiq didn’t come home, Rehana would enquire about her and send Maryam old clothes and a little money. She couldn’t complain.
The drizzle turned into a downpour. Drops of rain filtered down the leaking asbestos roof. Maryam hurried to finish making the rest of the chitoi.
It was a year of rain. The monsoon had started late and gained momentum so suddenly that their village had flooded even before they knew it. It’s not that the village required much rain to flood it. Every house in the village was built on high mounds of soil to avoid being flooded and every house kept a crude wooden boat ready for travelling during the rainy season.
It was in this season of rain Maryam was going to get married. She was barely sixteen at the time. She hadn’t even graduated from school. Her father was always away in Kolkata, practicing medicine. No, he didn’t have a degree like a proper doctor. He had acquired the skills while working as an apprentice with a doctor on Kyd Street. Now he administered medicines to the porters and other such people.
Whatever little she saw of him, Maryam had liked Shafiq. He was a funny man with a shapely beard and sharp features. He does have a princely bearing, she had thought.
“Would you like to watch a film with me?” Shafiq had asked Maryam once she had settled down in his house after marriage. She had hesitated before agreeing. She was still not sure how her in-laws would react to Maryam going out with her husband so soon after marriage. Shafiq had bought two tickets and kept them ready for the matinee show. If he didn’t have to bring Maryam back home early, he would have preferred a night show.
They were watching an Uttam-Suchitra film. The faint darkness of the theatre afforded them a space for intimacy. He put his arms around her shoulders and pulled her close. She had tried hard to fix her gaze on the screen. When his fingers softly grazed her breasts, her body responded to his advances. She was getting to know a man so intimately for the first time in her life. Her eyes darted around their seats, lest someone was watching them. Shafiq didn’t care. He was always a brave man. When the film ended, Maryam wanted it to continue. His love lingered in her mind, on her body, which was learning to respond to male desire.
Once the film ended, Shafiq had brought her to his small shop, very close to the theatre. The chubby boy, who worked as an attendant in his absence, had rushed to fetch tea for them. He had shown her around. Maryam had felt proud of her husband. He had picked a bottle of scented oil off the shelf and put it in her bag. She had protested mildly but had felt happy that he cared to remember.
“I won’t be able to come home for the next two days,” Shafiq was curt. He was combing his hair in a neat middle parting. His wet hair glistened in the morning light. He picked up the black rexine bag and walked out of the door. He cuddled the baby on his way out.
The baby held out its tiny fingers. When his father left, he cried out loudly, flailing his hands. Maryam picked up the baby from the cradle and held him close. The baby held on to his mother’s breast and quieted only after she allowed him to suckle.
The summer had just begun. The sun beat down on the tin roof of the verandah. Rays of bright light ricocheted off the wavy tins making her eyes contract. The peeled and sliced mangoes on the tin roof were almost dry. She needed to put them in a bottle and season with mustard to last for the year.
The baby was born about four months ago. Maryam was still recovering from exhaustion. The baby didn’t let her sleep most of the night. On these long nights, she kept missing Shafiq. He had stopped coming home regularly. When she had asked him, he had said, “I work hard during the day. I need to get a good night’s sleep. I can’t afford to be late going back to the shop.”
Maryam had felt hurt. As she tried to sleep at night, she would remember how Shafiq stayed awake at night to take care of the baby during the first month. He would rock the baby in his arms and feed it from the bottle. He would wrap his arms around her and ask her to catch some sleep. She had felt assured and loved.
And then he started coming home late. Often he didn’t come at all. She had believed he needed rest for the next day’s work. His business was doing well. She didn’t lack any of the comforts. They were never rich but they had managed to be content with whatever they had. Whenever Shafiq showed up after an absence of two or three days, she clung on to him. Maryam would hold him close and hope he would take her in his arms and make love to her. It was her way of making him stay longer.
It was a season of nor’easter. The thundershower in the evenings brought some relief to the day’s heat.
Maryam had put the baby to sleep and was getting ready to prepare the evening meal. Shafiq hadn’t returned home for a couple of days. He had sent some money through one of the men in the village. Maryam was feeling restless. The baby had developed a cough and she wanted to take him to the doctor in town. She had hoped Shafiq would come home tonight.
Salma knocked on the main door and walked in. Maryam felt happy to see her. She was younger than her and was on the verge of getting married. She came often to help with the baby when Maryam’s mother-in-law was absent. Salma loved to talk of her future husband. These village girls didn’t require lessons in house-keeping. They were taught to cook and stitch since they could remember. Salma’s questions were more often about physical intimacy. Maryam liked to tease her and enjoy watching her blush.
Maryam asked Salma to sit. The evening thundershower pounded on the shallow brick wall and drenched a corner of the kitchen. Salma hesitated before squatting next to her. Without waiting for an exchange of niceties, she said, “When did Shafiq bhai last come home?”
“A couple of days back. He might come tonight,” said Maryam without looking at her.
“Bhabhi, I have got to tell you something. Alam bhai saw Shafiq bhai come out of the theatre with another woman.”
Maryam stopped peeling the potato and looked straight into Salma’s eyes.
“Are you sure it was Shafiq?” That’s all she could manage at the moment.
Salma held Maryam’s hand and pressed it on her chest. She drew her close and held on to her. She would have been happy if she could somehow escape. However, she stayed on for a while. She didn’t want Maryam to feel alone at this moment.
Salma’s kamiz was drenched with Maryam’s tears. Her sobs increased and her whole body convulsed. Maryam lifted her head and wrenched herself away from Salma. The last flicker of the daylight had died down. The two women sat there in silence.
Maryam was lying in the bed. The cheap plastic clock on the wall struck ten. The dogs had forgotten to bark. Perhaps the thundershower had driven them away to seek shelter. She still expected that Shafiq would return home tonight. Her mind was racing with thoughts of confronting him.
The night was unusually calm. The baby wailed. She held the baby and pressed her breast to his mouth. The baby’s small fingers clutched her finger tight. Tears streamed down Maryam’s cheek. The sobs choked the cloistered air in the room. Slowly the sobs turned into a wail. She howled loudly, unmindful if her in-laws would wake up. The baby stopped suckling and looked at her. It started crying.
Maryam had just returned from the pond with a bundle. She needed to wash the baby’s clothes and the small kantha, specially sewn for the baby. It was past noon. She had lingered at the ghat of the pond. Other women had joined her in washing dishes. Some bathed in the pond, which was filling up quickly with the rain. The weeds had grown considerably, nourished by evening thundershowers, clogging the mouth of the ghat. The women pulled the weeds and threw them away to make way. Maryam had felt somewhat relieved listening to these women’s friendly banter.
As she was spreading the clothes on the line in the courtyard, she heard a knock on the door. Shafiq walked in just then. His face flushed with sweat and exhaustion. He leaned the cycle against the granary. The baby-goat grazing on the light grass of the courtyard moved away quickly.
Maryam looked at him once and pretended not to notice. She occupied herself with the clothes. Shafiq asked, “How is the baby?” He walked across the courtyard to the verandah without waiting for an answer. His mother took the black rexine bag from his hand.
The baby was lying on a cradle, fixed at one end of the verandah. It seemed to be asleep. Shafiq went straight to the baby and patted it on the cheek. He felt a sense of calm as he ran his fingers through the baby’s hair. The baby woke up with a start and looked into Shafiq’s eyes without blinking. His smile confirmed he had recognized his father. Shafiq lifted him on to his lap.
Shafiq already had lunch before coming. He didn’t want to bother Maryam with food, in case she hadn’t cooked for him. She spread the clothes and went upstairs to change into a dry sari. Shafiq gave the baby to his mother and walked behind Maryam.
When he entered their room, she was fixing her petticoat. Her breasts, heavy with milk, were bare. She took the sari off the wooden shelf and covered herself hastily. In the three years of their marriage, they had become comfortable with each other’s nakedness. Their intimacy had grown and Maryam had learnt to shed her inhibitions. Shafiq asked, “What’s the matter? Why are you avoiding me?”
“Who was the woman with you?”
“The one with whom you had gone to the theatre.”
Shafiq was speechless. For a moment, he was surprised with Maryam’s bluntness. The air inside the room seemed still. The small table fan whirred with effort.
Sensing the news had already reached her, Shafiq tried to make light of the matter. “Oh, she is just a friend.”
“I never knew you had a woman friend with whom you could go to the theatre. Now I know why you don’t come home for days.”
Shafiq pressed close and embraced her from the back, lowering his head on her lean shoulders. In a violent movement, Maryam broke away.
“We can’t live in this dilapidated mud house for ever. She has promised to help me build a pucca house. You know I don’t make enough to build a new house. We have a baby and we need to think of his future,” Shafiq blurted out.
Maryam stared at him. Her eyes flashed in anger. In her mind, she was pulling his shirt and tearing it to pieces. At this moment, she only felt a deep hatred for him.
“I’m going back to my parents’ house tomorrow morning with the baby.”
A dark cloud crept over the sky. The afternoon had quietly slid into the evening. The thundershower would strike any moment. Maryam had to pick the half-dried clothes off the line. She hurried out of the room and ran downstairs.
The rain had picked up speed. It was hitting mercilessly against the asbestos roof. The open courtyard is now filled with puddles, interspersed with green patches of grass and shrubs.
The new two-roomed house was built a few years ago. Shafiq didn’t have enough money to build a wall around the small courtyard. The kitchen was a mere shed at one side of the courtyard. The outer brick walls of the house stood naked without plaster and paint.
On the nights Maryam stayed alone, which were very often, she hugged the baby to relieve her fear. She had wished her in-laws would move into the new house. But they had refused and had stayed on in the old house with its large courtyard and granaries, a quarter mile away.
A strong gust of wind extinguished the fire in the oven. Maryam was blowing into it again. She had to hurry with the last few chitoi.
“Let me know if you want anything.” Rehana pleaded with Maryam.
Maryam looked at her sister and then looked away into the vast expanse of green paddy fields, half-submerged in the monsoon rain. On the edge of the fields, a buffalo was grazing on a raised green patch. A white crane sat perched on the buffalo, contemplating its flight.
 A hand-stitched blanket.
Mosarrap H Khan is an academic, currently based in a small town, Kotulpur, in West Bengal, India. His creative pieces have previously appeared on Asia Writes Project, The Sunflower Collective, and Cafe Dissensus Everyday.