Sunday, March 4, 2012
A Modern Princess by Anne Whitehouse
A Modern Princess by Anne Whitehouse
Once upon a time a girl was born to a well-to-do family in a lush, tropical country. She was the eldest child and ardently desired. Her infancy did not cause any trouble; she slept, suckled, smiled, was alert and good-natured, and cried only when hungry or tired, but as she had a doting mother and a nurse who anticipated her needs, this rarely occurred. She flourished, and when she was four years old, she was given a sister. But then floods, famine, and civil war threatened her country with destruction. It was 1970, in East Bengal, which declared its independence from Pakistan and in much turmoil became the new nation of Bangladesh.
The girl, called Shahanah, was Moslem. Her father, fearing for his family's survival, determined to leave the country. They were lucky; they departed for England and settled in a suburb of London. There were losses, of which not the least was their house and property, but Shahanah's father managed to take with him some valuable rugs and jewels, so that they did not arrive in England destitute. Nor were they all alone in this new country. Shahanah's family had relatives and acquaintances living nearby, and soon they were joined by others. Shahanah's father sold most of the jewels to buy a small house, and with the rugs, he entered business with another Bengali. He became a rug merchant and did not do badly. They were no longer rich, but they were comfortable. They fared much better than most refugees.
Soon there was a brother, too. The two younger children were called Indira and Rajiv. All three attended English schools, wore English clothes, and spoke English with each other. Shahanah grew accustomed to the dreary winters, the chill rain and the fog, and the mild green summers. The three children led sheltered lives. As the oldest, Shahanah was responsible for her brother and sister when they played together in the house or in the garden.
Shahanah was her father's darling, just as Rajiv was special to her mother. Although her parents' marriage had been arranged, neither's family was strictly orthodox; her mother, for example, had never been accustomed to wear the veil. She had completed secondary school, and Shahanah's father had gone to college. They believed in higher education for all their children. A shy, modest woman, her mother had grown heavy with childbirth, while her husband remained debonair. She deferred to her husband in major decisions, while he never interfered with her running of the household. Their children had never seen them disagree.
Appealing as a baby, Shahanah grew more lovely every day. When she was seven years old, her father took her into his study. He opened a drawer of his desk and withdrew a locked metal box. He produced a key and opened it and took out a small cloth bag. He loosened the drawstring and shook out the bag. On his palm lay a cut gem—it was a ruby.
"This is for you, my darling Shahanah," he said. "This is your ruby. I will keep it safe for you until you marry."
"Oh Papa." She lay a finger on his palm, and touched the hard, smooth surface of the gem. "I will marry you, and then it will be yours and mine." Shahanah calculated to please. She expected her father would find her speech adorable, and so he did, stroking her forehead and placing a kiss in the part of her hair.
Shahanah liked turning the pages of books more than she liked reading them. She cared for school, but not for studying. She played with dolls as a child, and when she was too old to dress and undress them, she still kept them, arranged on a shelf in her bedroom. She brought girlfriends home with her after school. They disappeared into her bedroom, where they drank cups of sweet tea, gossiped, and giggled, pressing the backs of their hands shyly over their quivering lips. She went to a girls' school and wore a gray uniform. She loved the brightly-colored saris of her country, but they were impractical for England. She wanted to be English and still be Bengali. She desired freedom and craved protection.
Shahanah had always liked seeing her reflection in a mirror, but it was not until she was a teenager that she realized that she was beautiful. Her figure was slender and delicately full. Her hair reached to her waist, and every night she brushed it until it was lustrous. Her complexion was unblemished, her eyebrows arched, her nose straight, her lips neither too full nor too thin, her eyes almond-shaped with dark irises and very clear whites.
She wanted to make an impression and have it acknowledged, but she was shy. Though she could not have expressed it, she felt she was meant for private rather than public display. In her own country, her marriage, like her parents', would have been arranged, but in England custom was against this practice. Shahanah assumed she would be married, but thought of it occurring "one day," a time distant and indefinite in the future. She imagined herself at her wedding, all splendidly arrayed, but she couldn't picture the man she would wed.
She hardly knew any men—that is, any boys near her own age. There was her brother, her cousin, some few others—that was all. Her parents didn't allow her to date. She had never minded before, but now she began to. Her parents, proud of their children's English education, wanted her to take her "O" levels, but she was determined to go out on her own, find a job, and share a flat with other young girls. She asked her parents for money for college applications and used it instead to list herself with an employment agency. Despite her lack of experience, she soon landed a job as secretary in a medical publishing firm. Through a girlfriend at school, she was put in touch with two other working girls who needed a roommate. Her "room" did not really have walls or a door; it was a section of the living room partitioned off by screens. But she could afford the rent with her small salary, so she told Kelly and Mary that she would take it.
The hardest part for Shahanah was informing her parents of her plans. Very gravely she requested to see them alone one night after dinner. The meeting was held in the dining room over the empty, soiled plates which had not yet been cleared away. She couldn't think of a way to lead into the issue, so she blurted it out. She told her parents about the job and the flat with Kelly and Mary. "I need to live on my own," she said. Her cheeks were pink with the effort of telling, and the embarrassment and fear that they would confront her.
Shahanah's parents did not forbid her at once to carry out her intentions. They had been in England thirteen years, and they didn't want to lose their daughter. But her mother, though silent, was clearly nervous and threatened. She wrung her hands and turned a beseeching look on her husband. "Daughter," he said, "I commend you on your initiative, having already found yourself a job. You may go to work. It will be a good experience for you. However, your mother and I would prefer that you continue to live here, under our roof."
Shahanah sat up very straight. She could feel the ends of her hair, woven in a single long braid, touch the base of her spine. "Thank you, Father and Mother," she said in a high, clear voice. "I'm glad that you don't object to my working. But as for the flat, I've already given my word to Kelly and Mary that I'm taking it."
"Very well," her father said, "but we'll consider it a temporary situation. At any time you wish, your room here will be ready for you."
Perhaps he thought she would be back in a week. But the adventure of her new situation lasted longer than that. She even enjoyed the chipped plates and the cheap fabrics that furnished her new home. Her parents gave her money to purchase a wardrobe for work. She bought nylons, low-heeled pumps, conservative skirts, and tailored blouses. Although she did not type quickly, she was diligent and deferential. Her co-workers and roommates liked her.
At first she enjoyed sitting around in her bathrobe late on Saturday mornings with Kelly and Mary, drinking tea and talking. Under their influence, she laughed more openly. But even when she was included with their friends, she never truly felt part of the group. These people were outsiders; or, rather, she was the outsider. In her own eyes, she began to see herself as exotic, and it made her uneasy. Yet she still wanted to please.
She worked for six months. She visited her family regularly every weekend. Usually someone gave her a ride back to her flat. She enjoyed these occasions, and sometimes she felt sorry to leave, but she wasn't yet ready to move home. Her job mattered to her in that she wanted to be complimented and feared being scolded. She wasn't disappointed exactly; she was proud when she deposited her paycheck, but she didn't feel as free as she'd hoped to. Sometimes she went to parties with Kelly and Mary, but she discovered that she didn't want to meet English boys. She wanted to give the first chance to boys of her own background. Yet she hesitated asking her parents to arrange for her to meet someone suitable.
She still longed for adventure, provided there was little risk. She felt an urge to travel. She discovered that a group of her former schoolmates were planning a visit to New
York under the chaperonage of two teachers. Two other Bengali girls were going. On one of her weekend visits home, she chose a moment when she and her father were alone together. She told him about the trip and mentioned how much she wished to join it. As she spoke, he looked almost wistful. He cleared his throat.
"Well," he said finally, "you've worked very hard. You deserve a vacation. Let me speak to the teacher, and if I find the arrangements are satisfactory, I'll give you permission and the money."
Shahanah threw her arms around his neck. "I'll be good," she promised.
A month later she was set to go. She told Kelly and Mary she was leaving. At her job, her supervisor told her that, while she might not receive any pay in her absence, she could still come back to work when she returned. The night before she was to leave, she couldn't sleep for excitement, and arrived in New York utterly exhausted. The group's first excursion, after checking into their hotel, was to the top of the Empire State Building. It was early December, before the Christian holidays. The air was cold and sparkling. Shahanah was bundled in a wool coat, a muffler, gloves, and ear muffs. Her long hair hung down her back, silky and thickened by static electricity. Afterwards, the girls went with their teachers to the department stores and looked at the displays, crowded round by other shoppers.
Rekha, one of the other Bengali girls, had been given the address and telephone of a cousin she didn't know, who was attending Columbia University. She called him, and he arranged for her and her friends to join him and his friends at an informal party in his student apartment. It was here that Shashanah met Chandra S--, an engineering student from Calcutta. He was wiry and wore a dark moustache. Otherwise, his face was very smooth. Chandra noticed Shahanah at once when she entered the apartment, and he approached her and introduced himself. All evening he made himself her protective shadow. This was new for Shahanah, who was thrilled by Chandra's admiration.
The party was so successful that it was repeated a few days later. At this meeting, Shahanah allowed Chandra to kiss her. They were again in Rekha's cousin's apartment, but for the first time she and Chandra were alone in the bedroom. The bed was piled high with the guests' coats. The guests were in the living room. She was surprised at the softness and warmth of his lips, and afraid of the insistence of his tongue between her parted teeth. All of a sudden, she didn't want to be alone with him. She averted her lips from his. She thought he was going to push her onto the bed. "Let's go find the others," she said, taking his wrist, as he reached for her shoulder. "They're certain to be wondering what's happened to us."
"They're certain to know," Chandra said. "I love you, Shahanah."
Her knees went weak at his words, and when he repeated them to her two days later, her legs collapsed under her, and she had to sit down. This evening she was at his apartment. They had eaten dinner together at a restaurant. Afterwards, when he had asked her over, she had known she should refuse. Yet she had consented against her better judgment.
She sat on Chandra's sofa with Chandra hovering over her. She was perfectly still. She realized that he interpreted her lack of resistance as an encouragement. She even thought, I am giving myself to him. Was it because she was weak? she wondered. She had always wanted to please, but she had never given such pleasure before, or felt so much in return.
She was frightened by it. When Chandra opened her blouse, she blushed. But he was so certain of himself, so effusive with compliments, so close, so overwhelming: she thought she must love him. In some deep, unthoughtful part of herself, she believed that she would discover love by obliging Chandra.
He coaxed her, and she was still nervous. Once they had started, it seemed harder to leave than to succumb. Nevertheless, she could not entirely yield to him. Inside she was small, dry; she felt a scratchy, sandpapery roughness, but no real pain. She wanted it to go away, for herself to change, but she did not. She lay lengthwise on the sofa, with Chandra on top of her pushing into her smallness and dryness. They were both struggling. She felt a little sorry, almost maternal. When it was over, Chandra told her again that he loved her. She did not tell him that he was her first. She sensed he might already know, and if he didn't, she was embarrassed to give him this, having already given him so much.
In her naivété, she assumed she would marry him. She saw him each day of the three days that remained, but because of her schedule they were able to make love only once more. Though she would have been willing to abandon other activities for Chandra, she was ashamed of appearing too forward by offering. Before the second time, she told herself that she knew what to expect, and it was easier for her. She made a pledge to him, and in turn he vowed his love. She believed he was waiting to speak to her father before asking her to marry him. They agreed to write frequently and to exchange pictures. He told her he would come to London during his spring vacation to see her and meet her family.
Once in London, Shahanah settled back into her old room in her parents' house. On both sides there was a tacit understanding that she would stay there. Nor did she go back to her job. Instead, she returned to school to make up those final months when she had dropped out last year, and prepare for the examinations she had never taken. She told her parents about Chandra, but she was hurt by their reaction. As if they guessed the secret she did not share, both her father and her mother warned her against him. She burst into tears and fled to her room.
She had sent him a photograph right away, one taken on the trip. She had been snapped full-faced, hair streaming, on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, with the blurred New York skyline behind her. Chandra reciprocated with a stiff, unsmiling picture of himself wearing a jacket and tie against a plain background—a passport photo.
This picture made Shahanah feel uncomfortable; it did not resemble the Chandra she remembered. The letters were better, but after she received three, each a week apart, they stopped coming. She continued to write Chandra long, frequent letters. After three weeks passed without word, she confided in Rekha and asked her to contact her cousin for news of Chandra.
The news, when it came, was about as bad as it could be. "It appears," wrote Rekha's cousin, in an attempt to sound more discreet, "that Chandra has been seen in the company of other young women." He went on to add, "Shahanah should not have any hopes."
The stilted, old-fashioned phrasing of this letter went straight through Shahanah's heart. She found it hard to believe that their relationship was already over. So quickly had her expectations come to revolve around Chandra. She wondered if she would ever be able to trust another man.
Her mother could not resist an "I told you so," but her father, seeing how hurt she was, refrained from saying anything. Besides, both parents now had their hands full with Indira, who was fifteen years old and wanted to become an actress. Soon Shahanah settled down to a life of diligent study and family outings.
But she was lonely. She felt herself growing duller; she wondered if, at nineteen, she were losing her looks. She was afraid she would be an old maid, and her father would have to keep his ruby forever.
Spring had come—the cool, late English spring. One day near the beginning of May, a letter arrived, addressed to Shahanah in a stranger's hand, bearing American stamps and a New York postmark. She recognized the neat, cramped script in which children of the subcontinent are taught to write English. She had the larger, squarer handwriting taught in English schools, but she'd seen this style before, for example, in her father's writing. Looking at the letter, she was curious, even apprehensive. Since it was mailed from New York, she feared that it would somehow be concerned with Chandra. She waited until she was alone in her room to open it.
Dear Miss Shahanah D-- [the letter read],
This letter will come as a surprise to you. We have never met. A month ago, in the rooms of an engineering student, Chandra S--, I discovered a photograph of the most beautiful girl I have ever seen. I have not been able to forget her. I asked Chandra who she was. You must know this photograph well, since it is of you. It is with Chandra's knowledge that I am writing to you now, hoping that you will permit me to initiate a correspondence between us.
I enclose a photograph of myself so you will know my face, as I know yours. It is not a beautiful face like yours, but please believe that it is a good face. Like you, I am from Bangladesh, a Moslem, but I have been educated in the United States. I received my degree with honors from Columbia College. I am 26 years old. I work for a commercial bank, Citibank, in research and development. I have been there for three years.
I am willing to write your father if he wishes it. My intentions are honorable. Please respond.
The photograph which fell from the letter was a snapshot taken next to a public fountain of a young, smiling man. He had a round face, oval liquid eyes, and nearly straight brows. He was sturdily built and casually dressed in a red sweater. Shahanah turned the letter and picture over, as if looking for clues, but there was nothing more. She read the letter again. It struck her as a strange mixture of the audacious and the formal. The line, "It is with Chandra's knowledge that I am writing to you now" caused her pain, but it was more pride than love. She had come to despise Chandra.
Her feelings were complicated. On the one hand, she felt wary of any connection to Chandra; on the other, she couldn't help the desire, shameful as she knew it was, to revenge herself against him. Yet if Chandra knew that this man was writing her, it probably meant he did not care. She realized that this man, Nazrul, had not said that he was Chandra's friend.
She wondered what made him find her picture wonderful. She recalled the photograph: it was blurred, it really didn't show her to best advantage. It had simply been available when she had needed an image of herself to send, and she had liked the idea of mailing it back to New York where it had been taken.
She realized that she was intrigued by this letter and didn't want to ignore it, but neither did she wish to expose herself to further shame. Her previous gestures towards adventure had not been altogether successful, so she showed the letter to her father.
Her father seemed even more curious than she was. "What do you want, Shahanah? Do you want me to write this man?"
"If you would."
So it was that the correspondence began: a few lines from Shahanah acknowledging Nazrul's letter, and the page completed by her father, asking Nazrul about his family, his studies, his job. In three weeks there was another letter from New York, this time addressed to Shahanah's father. They learned that Nazrul was an orphan, that he had lived in the United States for twelve years, and had become an American citizen. He had attended Columbia College on a scholarship. He had been recruited by the bank, and promoted three times in as many years. He asked for Shahanah's telephone number, and for permission to call.
"He sounds as if he's applying for a position," Shahanah said.
"Oh, he is," said her father, and she blushed.
She wrote Nazrul back herself and sent her number. He called her on a Sunday in late June. The relatives were visiting. They were all drinking tea out in the garden, where the roses were blooming. The maid called Shahanah in from the sunshine: "Telephone for you." She had no idea who it was.
When Nazrul identified himself, she almost dropped the receiver. He repeated what he had said about her photograph in the letter. She liked the sound of his voice. When she carefully broached the question of Chandra, she was relieved to discover that Nazrul barely knew him—"a friend of a friend."
"It's over between us," Shahanah heard herself saying. "I should have written him for my picture back, but I didn't want to give him the satisfaction."
"I'm glad you didn't, because I'm glad it was there for me to discover."
She laughed, a trill over the wires, a pulse fast as light, travelling the cables under the sea.
"Perhaps you'll send me your picture, too," he said.
"Will you take good care of it?"
"I'll guard it with my life."
Before Shahanah realized it, they had talked for twenty minutes. Afterwards, not two days went by that Nazrul didn't call her. She sent him two photographs, one of her dressed in a pale yellow sari embroidered in gold for a family celebration, another of her wearing Bermuda shorts by an English lake. Both pictures were both in good focus.
"I like that. The English Shahanah and the Bengali Shahanah. Which is more beautiful?" Nazrul said when he called.
"Are you asking me?"
"No, I'm answering. The Bengali Shahanah is more beautiful. But it's nice to be able to be both."
He seemed to sense when his compliments, rather than giving her pleasure, began to embarrass her. She found herself confiding in him certain feelings that she'd never told anyone, about leaving her country when she was so young. "I know my father did the best thing. Life has been good here. But I can't help wondering what I would have been if I had stayed." Her story wasn't exceptional, but it seemed to gain meaning when she told it to him. And when he told her about himself, she felt awed and almost ashamed of her own good fortune.
His mother had died of an illness when he was very young, so that he barely remembered her. His father, who was an officer in the Pakistani Air Force, had been killed in the Bangladesh war, and he had come to the United States by himself, an orphan at the age of fourteen, a refugee sponsored by a distant relative he'd never met. He'd started over again in American schools, and worked to support himself. Good people had taken an interest in him. He'd tried hard, he'd been lucky.
As Nazrul's phone calls to Shahanah became a habit, her family began teasing her. "Who is this man? He must be either crazy or very rich," was a frequent comment. After a month, Shahanah's father took her aside. "This is becoming ridiculous, my daughter. The next time you speak with your young man, please invite him to visit us in England. Tell him that, rather than spending all his money for transatlantic calls, it would be cheaper for him simply to come here and meet us, and that we would be happy to know him."
She repeated her father's words to Nazrul. He quickly agreed to travel to London. "I've accumulated vacation time. It's very kind of your family to invite me." However, as they began to discuss the visit, a conflict arose. Nazrul wanted to stay in a hotel, but Shahanah's father insisted that he be their guest. Nazrul resisted. She realized that to him a hotel meant independence. He was proud of being a self-made man, and this was how he wanted to meet her and her family. Her father appreciated Nazrul's feelings, but he was more than equally adamant. He got on the phone to speak to Nazrul. "It's gracious of you to offer to stay at a hotel, but there's no reason for it. There's a guestroom for you already waiting. It will be our pleasure to entertain you."
In August, Nazrul flew to London to visit Shahanah as a guest of the family. He would take a cab from the airport, however. "I don't want to put you to any other inconvenience," he explained.
On the morning that he was expected, Shahanah sat waiting in the front parlor, because its windows faced the street. It was a smallish room, furnished formally with a hard Victorian sofa with a carved wooden back, delicate chairs, a table with a marble top. She thought to herself, I might be a girl from another time, waiting. She was surprised at how calm she felt.
It was ten o'clock. Her father was at work. Her brother and sister had gone out. Only her mother and the maid were at home. She listened to passing cars, waiting for the one that would stop in front of the house. The street, which was lined with plane trees in full leaf, was off the main thoroughfare. The morning air was hazy, with a faint hint of rain. She saw a cab approach. Just as it appeared over the rise in the road, she felt it must be bringing the visitor she expected. And she turned away, rather than be glimpsed at the window.
The doorbell rang, and she went to answer it. She wanted to be the one who opened the house to Nazrul. She found herself looking up, but not very far, into the face of the man whose photograph she had received, now surrounded by the background of her own London street. He clutched a single large suitcase.
"Please come in," she said, finding her voice. "Yes, please," said her mother, who had come up behind her. There were introductions. The maid showed Nazrul to his room, at the other end of the hall from Shahanah's. He set down his suitcase next to the bed, declining an offer to rest. While he washed his face and hands of the dust of travel, Shahanah's mother prepared tea. She served it in the parlor. Graciously, she asked Nazrul to choose from an opulent collection of sweets beautifully arranged on a silver tray. The three sat together, drinking tea and conversing. The day stretched out before them, and the next, and the next.... Shahanah asked her mother for permission to take Nazrul out to lunch. "I'd like to show him something of London."
After a moment's hesitation, her mother agreed. Though she had grown up in London, Shahanah didn't know it that well. She took him to a restaurant with a worn, comfortable atmosphere that she had frequented back in her days with Kelly and Mary. There was a fireplace at one end, which in winter burned brightly, but now was unlit. Outside, it had begun to drizzle.
The restaurant specialized in hard-to-digest English dishes with strange names, like Welsh rarebit. Shahanah and Nazrul let their lunches grow cold on their plates—"I ought to have taken you for Bengali food," she said. "London has some wonderful restaurants."
"We have plenty of time," he said, and it seemed that they had.
In the afternoon they went to the British Museum. Shahanah showed Nazrul the Elgin marbles. Product of an English education, she had studied the civilization of the ancient Greeks and been taken here many times in the past. But now, as she stood before these sculptures with Nazrul, they appeared to her in a fresh light. She tried to picture them in their original location as part of the Parthenon rather than inside this museum. "Invaders always cart off bits and pieces of the conquered civilization," she commented.
He took her hand. They walked from room to room. "Both of us products of a war-torn country, separated across the globe," he said. In a kind of wonder, he brought up his hand to caress her shining fall of hair. He couldn't resist the fascination of clasping the nape of her neck. Her very breath altered in surprise at the touch, which she felt herself quickly respond to. She arched her neck to fit the cup of his palm, but almost immediately, he withdrew his hand.
When they left the museum, the drizzle had let up. The sky, massed with clouds, cast a shrouded light. The pavements and buildings gleamed, still wet from the rain. People were off from work. For the first time, Nazrul and Shahanah were caught up in the crowd.
"We can take the tube home," Shahanah said. She wanted him to know that she moved freely.
"This is your city. You lead the way."
"We have time, I think, to walk a little first."
They strolled, looking around them and at each other. She forgot about the time. She was happy walking with Nazrul. She felt concentrated, holding his hand.
Reluctantly, she glanced at her watch. "We'd better be getting back."
They were standing at the curb, and Nazrul drew her back to the shadow of the buildings. He faced her, and there was a tension between them. He stared into her eyes, and she forgot herself, feeling only his gaze on her. Overcome, she closed her eyes. Then he kissed her on her eyelids, and traced the outline of her lips with his lips. She felt the hesitation in his kiss, and then the care with which he sought her response. He didn't take it for granted, as Chandra had. They went home in the tube home with the rest of the world, then walked the few blocks from the station, quietly, in the twilight, each preparing individually for the family gathering, in which Nazrul would be expected to distinguish himself. Shahanah sensed his nervousness, but in respect for his feelings of pride, said nothing.
Her father met them at the door. "We were wondering when you would return," he said, but there was more indulgence in his tone than disapproval. "Nazrul," he extended his hand to his daughter's suitor. Then he bent to embrace his daughter.
The family had been waiting dinner for them. Shahanah and Nazrul were seated next to each other on the same side of the table. Indira and Rajiv sat across. At fifteen, Indira was more voluptuous than her sister. Rajiv was still small, a teasing boy. Her mother wore a beautiful necklace of pearls and aquamarine; gold bracelets were on her arms. Her dark hair, streaked with grey, was twisted in a bun, and she alone was wearing a sari. The maid brought out the platters of food—rice, with two curries, dal, and chapaties. To Nazrul, the food, familiar though it was, had a slightly different taste than what he was accustomed to. He couldn't identify it, but defined it as a taste of England.
With relief he saw that they were a relaxed family, interested in putting him at ease. The conversation began in English, revolving around London and New York, and then moved to their common homeland. After he was asked, Nazrul began to tell his life story. The family listened attentively, forgetting to eat.
He was deliberately undramatic. Shahanah thought that, had the story been hers, she would have told it differently. She wondered if Nazrul understated his trials in order to appear uncomplaining and strong. And so he is, she thought.
With pride she watched her family responding to him. They flattered him with their attentions and sought his opinions. The thought of her sister's romance excited Indira with similar longings. Rajiv thrilled in the presence of another man, younger than his father and yet older than himself. Shahanah's parents were impressed by Nazrul's maturity, by the clear way in which he expressed himself, and by the qualities of respect and devotion which seemed so evident in him. This was a man, they thought, to whom it might be safe to entrust their daughter.
Nazrul stayed in England for one week. When he left, he and Shahanah were engaged.
But they kept it their secret. Once she would never have thought she would want to keep such news from her parents, but during Nazrul's visit, she had felt her allegiance subtly altering. Still, when she tried to imagine herself as Nazrul's wife, but she couldn't yet picture it.
"I love you," she wrote to Nazrul.
She accepted him like her fate.
He offered to ask her father formally for his daughter's hand, but she discovered that she wished to tell her parents herself. She wanted them to know that she was making her own, free choice. Over the phone, she and Nazrul arranged an evening when she would speak to them, and he would call soon after. "I don't want your parents to think I'm stealing their daughter," he said.
How careful he was, how good. She felt safe with him.
"Nazrul has asked me to marry him, and I have accepted. We ask for your approval and your blessing." Shahanah was grave, her voice low but tense. Not with defiance, but with hope, she stood before her parents, her eyes more pleading than her voice. "Come to me," said her father, and he took her in his arms.
"Is this what you want, my Shahanah? Are you sure?" His eyes smiled down into hers, and she nodded into his cupped palm. "We have raised a brave, modern girl," he said, with approval that held the faintest tinge of sadness. He turned to his wife. "Well?"
Shahanah's mother was crying, but smiling through her tears.
When Nazrul called, her father spoke to him first, then her mother. She didn't listen to these conversations, but waited in her room, away from her brother and sister, who knew nothing and suspected everything. Impatiently she shredded kleenexes and twisted them into wands. When her father came to tell her that her "fiancé" wished to speak with her, she couldn't contain her exclamation of happiness and her radiant smile.
Nazrul came to London again in December, to discuss and plan the wedding. Only a year before, Shahanah had visited New York a as a girl in a chaperoned group. Now she was contemplating with her fiancé their future life there.
The first night of his visit, Nazrul presented Shahanah with her ring ceremonially, before the assembled family after dinner. They all admired the little circle of rubies around a diamond. When she learned that he had selected it with her father's help, it made the ring all the dearer to her. She was glad that her fiancé, who was so proud, had not let his pride hurt her father.
During Nazrul's visit, he and Shahanah had little time alone together. There was so much to do. Parties were held in their honor, to introduce Nazrul to relatives and friends. It was Christmas time, and Shahanah's family had always entered into the holiday spirit by exchanging presents. One afternoon Shahanah and Nazrul went shopping together. As if they were husband and wife already, they came out of the stores with their arms laden with packages—gifts for the family. The sky was dark, and it was raining. They took shelter in a tearoom and held hands over the oilcloth. Outside the window, black water dripped from the eaves. Her ring sparkled on her finger, against the cheap cloth. Gently, he pressed her palm. "I'm so happy."
"I want to be yours," whispered Shahanah. "Please come to me in the night."
At first Nazrul didn't answer, and she wondered if he had heard. She didn't think she had the courage to repeat it, but then he lifted his eyes and looked at her searchingly. "I want you so much," he said, "but I don't want to hurt you or to cause your family pain."
"Let it be tonight," she said. "We'll be so very quiet."
In the dead of night, he pressed open her door. In an instant, she was beside him, closing it carefully, locking it soundlessly. In the glow of the nightlight, a relic of her childhood fear of the dark, he saw her in a sleeveless white nightgown, with two buttons open at her throat. Her dark hair tumbled over her slender arms. She laid her face against his chest, against the silk lapel of his robe.
She put her arms around him. He kissed the top of her head, her brow, her cheeks. They held each other close. Under the cotton gown, she was naked.
She loosened the sash of his robe and parted it. Weightlessly, soundlessly, it slipped from his shoulders and made a little puddle on the floor. He was wearing pajamas.
He drew her down to her narrow bed, kissing her more deeply than he ever had. He felt her breasts through the thin cloth. "Please take it off. I want to see you," he whispered.
Wordlessly, she pulled the nightgown over her head. She was not ashamed. In the dim light, she felt him looking at her. With surprise she realized his eyes were glistening with tears.
"Don't cry," she whispered.
She held his head in the circle of her arms, and drew his face down to her breast. Once again, she felt maternal. They sank into the sheets, and he took her hand, guiding it through the slit in his pants. "Touch me, please, touch me," he whispered.
She felt a spasm of distaste, and then of fear, and overcame them. Hardly breathing, he waited for her to discover him.
"You, too," she whispered. "You must take off everything."
"I'm afraid you'll find me ugly, when I find you so beautiful."
He undid the buttons of the shirt, and she helped him slip it off. Hurriedly, he began to take off the pants. Awkwardly he caught his legs and then freed himself. "Did I kick you? Are you all right?" he whispered.
He lay with his weight across her, and she inhaled the ordor of his skin. As he pressed against her, her womb retracted a little, in fear. "I'm too heavy for you."
"Then I will kiss you all over."
He covered her with feather kisses, butterfly kisses, kisses like sucking sea anemones. He was urgent, and still shy. He turned away from her so she would not see him take his precautions. He covered her with his body, and she waited for him to find her opening, not daring to help. Roughly, spasmodically, he pushed himself up into her.
He hurt her at first, and then the pain went away. This was the fullness and the rhythm she had felt before with Chandra, and yet it wasn't at all the same; she wasn't the same. She felt all the doors of herself opening, in a blur of movement, until it was as if she were falling through herself, and all the while Nazrul was with her; she held him hard inside her.
A long "O-o-oh," like a rush of breath, escaped her. She thought to herself that this was the secret that had been kept from her with Chandra. This knowledge made her feel as if Nazrul had truly been her first man.
"Love is the breath of the world. The rest is war," whispered Nazrul, lying next to her, spreading her hair until it fanned out across the pillow. She thought, "No one else will ever speak to me like this." This was the secret life of couples together. Shahanah entered this life with joy. She was twenty years old.
* * *
Nazrul returned to New York. Shahanah's days were occupied with plans for her wedding. Her father would spare no expense. He had offered to bring over Nazrul's aunt and her daughter—his closest living relatives—from Bangladesh for the wedding. It was strange to Shahanah how suddenly she became the focus of so much attention, after having done so little to earn it. One evening her father brought her into his bedroom, and, going to his desk, he took out the box and found the ruby he had once showed her so long ago. Holding her hand in his, he placed it in her palm and closed her fingers over it. "It's yours now, my darling," he said to her.
"Oh, Papa," she exclaimed as she had as a child. "Really and truly?" She held it up to the lamp, turning it between her fingers to see its sheen and glimmer in the light. She hugged him and kissed his cheek. In that moment, she was still his, and not another's. "I will treasure it, but what shall I do with it?"
"What do you want?"
"To wear it."
"Then we'll make you a necklace. Will you like that?"
"Oh, yes. It will go with my ring."
"I know," said her father.
* * *
In May Nazrul and Shahanah were married. The festivities lasted for days. An artist came to the house to decorate her hands with henna. With a toothpick he drew delicate patterns, scrolls and intricate arabesques on her palms, then sealed the henna with lemon juice and sugar. A patterned tent had been erected in the garden, with buffet tables under it. The lawn was covered with rugs.
In a green sari the color of happiness, embroidered in gold, Shahanah sat in the middle of a circle of girls—her sister, cousins, and friends. "The bride is fairer than the moon. Yes she is. Yes she is," they sang. Her face veiled, she joined Nazrul on a green cushion inlaid with mirrors. Relatives brought in platters heaped with henna and decorated with lit candles and silver foil. They placed a pinch of henna for luck and happiness in a leaf laid on her palm. They fed her sweets for a sweet life, ground pistachios in flaky pastry, little nests of noodles dripping with honey, and nuts dipped in silver. They waved money over her head to protect her from evil. And they did the same for Nazrul.
The wedding was the next day. Her mother and her sister escorted Shahanah down the staircase to the parlor, where a low, raised platform had been placed, fragrant with roses and boughs of hawthorn. Her uncle Nasim was there to greet her. "Do you accept Nazrul, son of Ayaz M--, as your husband?" he asked her. Shahanah smiled and said nothing. She knew he had to ask the question three times. He repeated it twice, and finally she gave her consent. Her mother and sister kissed her, and her uncle brought the good news to the waiting men. Her father led in Nazrul to take his place next to her. Her relatives held a shawl above their heads like a canopy and placed a mirror before them. Shahanah gazed into it and saw herself and Nazrul as partners in life for the first time.
* * *
Months later, in the sweltering New York summer, Shahanah studied her wedding pictures. She was struck by her own beauty. Everything was as it should have been. She could not remember a single wrong moment.
In the afternoon, the lights off for coolness, the fan blowing the air, she sat quietly in cotton shorts and a blouse, her feet in sandals, turning the leaves of the album, recalling her wedding. She wasn't unhappy, she loved her husband, but this new existence was still strange to her. She wasn't yet adjusted to it.
They had spent a week in Paris on their honeymoon. It had seemed to her as if this beautiful, entrancing city were a backdrop before which they enacted these first moments of their life together. Nazrul couldn't withhold his admiration of her. He could scarcely believe his luck that she was his. He recounted the story of their courtship. It had already become something of a legend.
Shahanah was suffused with pride and pleasure. She wanted to make him perfectly happy.
Yet she wasn't prepared for the life that awaited her in New York. Nazrul was proud of the apartment that he had managed to hold onto since his student days. The building belonged to Columbia, and the rent was low. Still, as he led her into the dilapidated foyer of the building off Broadway, and they went up the elevator, to the apartment, he felt obliged to explain that he hadn't altered its furnishings, hoping instead that she would change them to her liking.
He had to unlock three different locks to get into the door. He put down the bags and carried her over the threshold. She laughed in his arms, "We're home." Home was dark and dreary. The first room was a living room and, off it, a kitchen, equipped with old appliances. Just as Nazrul turned on the light, Shahanah saw a cockroach race across the floor. The bedroom was on the opposite side of the living room. In it was a wooden structure with posts.
"What's that?" she asked.
"That's a loft bed. It's where we'll sleep. There's not a lot of room, and I needed space for my desk, so I built this, and I put the desk under it."
"Aren't you afraid it'll fall down?"
Nazrul looked at his wife's serious, wide-eyed face and smiled. "No."
"I feel nervous about sleeping way up there. What if I turn in my sleep and tumble off?"
"I'll hold you all through the night."
In the morning they woke, still entwined. Nazrul kissed Shahanah's hair, her eyes, her lips. "Time to get up."
Still half in sleep, she descended the ladder with caution. She feared she would never feel entirely safe in that bed. In the kitchen she boiled water for tea and made breakfast. She watched with pride as Nazrul, in his suit, picked up his briefcase and left for the office. He kissed her goodbye, the door opened and closed behind him, and that was all.
How lonely she was! This she did not tell him. He was good, he was trying to make her happy, and she did not want to trouble him. While he was gone, she did the housekeeping and shopping. She learned the neighborhood stores and began to patronize them. But time was heavy on her hands. The streets were full of noise and heat, and after she had been out for a while, the clamor would make her long to go inside. The poverty she saw all around her, the homeless people begging on the streets horrified her. She had seen worse poverty in Bangladesh when she was a child, but that was a poor country and to be expected, whereas she was in the richest country in the world.
Her homesickness affected her physically, in an unsettling of her stomach. She missed her family so much she was unable to tell them. She didn't want them to think she was unhappy. There was no one that she could confide in. She had not a single friend in New York.
The first weeks were the worst, when she watched television or just sat in the dark. One afternoon she cried into a pillow until it was soaked. She said nothing, but her husband noticed. "Don't go into a decline," he pleaded. He kissed her fingers one by one, trying to soothe her.
Maybe I should study, she thought. Maybe I should go to school. Her husband and his friends were all educated. There was so much she did not know. She had been a dutiful student, but not a curious one. Alternately, she considered getting a job. I could look for work as a secretary, she thought. I have some experience that might help me.
But she had to wait for the green card that would certify her as a resident before she could go to work. It would take several months, she and Nazrul were told.
As the weeks passed, it became easier for her to speak to Nazrul of London. "Life is more civilized there," she said.
"But I love this country. It's given me everything. I hope you'll come to love it, too."
Shahanah felt isolated from the pulsing life of the city that her husband entered every day. When he walked out the door, her imagination followed him on the subway all the way downtown to his office at the bank, where he was constantly occupied all day long. Yet, while she longed to be busy and active, she wasn't really sorry that she wasn't part of that life. She didn't think she had the energy to face the crowds, the fast pace, and the stress. She was afraid of being crushed underfoot.
She was grateful to Nazrul for braving the city for her sake and for protecting her from it. She was aware of being dependent on him and a little ashamed that she wasn't doing more to help him. She felt inferior.
But at night, in bed, all this changed. She opened her arms to him, and she was his equal. Sometimes his breath was harsh, and she kissed him until it grew sweet. His vulnerability, his need of her made her passionate. Their nakedness was a shedding of defenses, discarded like their clothes, for this mysterious life.
Not asking, but knowing. Or not knowing, but feeling.
"You discovered this yourself," he said.
"But you showed me."
The truth was great enough to be both things. "We will have children. We will grow old together." Nazrul's words were not a prediction, but a vow.
She thought of their creating life, of that life stirring inside her, changing her utterly, of her delivering it into the world—a whole, new, precious life for them both to live for, as her parents had lived for her.
They were trying to save money to buy a house.
* * *
In August, Shahanah's father came to New York. "I have some business affairs, and I want to see how your husband is taking care of you," he said when he called her to announce his visit.
The day he was to arrive, she got down on her hands and knees to scrub the bathtub and shine the faucets, even though he would be staying at a hotel. She planned to serve dinner at home for him. The apartment would be hot, but it couldn't be helped.
Her father phoned her from the hotel, and she was waiting when he buzzed. Nazrul had not yet returned from work. She watched from her open doorway as the elevator doors parted, delivering him. He looked lost, glancing left and right, not yet seeing her. "Papa!" She was wearing the ruby around her neck.
When he greeted her, she burst into tears.
"I'm so ashamed. I didn't mean to act like a baby. It's just—I'm glad to see you," she murmured, hiding her face, wiping her eyes. "It's so hot. Let me hang up your jacket. I want to show you the apartment."
She took him through the three rooms. He expressed the same surprise as she had at the loft bed, but she was relieved when he didn't criticize. In the living room, he put his arms around her again and drew her close. She could feel the ruby pressed between them.
The key turned in the lock, startling them. They separated like guilty lovers. "That's Nazrul," she said unnecessarily. Partly from embarrassment and partly from a determination not to be embarrassed, she rushed to the door to see her husband in.
He was still holding his briefcase when he kissed her briefly but tenderly on the lips. She felt her father watching, and thought of how her husband was claiming her with this well‑mannered kiss.
She left them to make conversation while she went to the kitchen. It pleased her, having both her men under her care. She knew they were thinking of her, even while they spoke together and she was not with them.
She brought out the food, and they sat down to eat. She beamed at their praise of her cooking. Her father related the family news. Indira had a small part in a play produced by a summer theatre; he and her mother didn't quite approve, but felt it was important for her to get it out of her system. "Like you," he said, "when you dropped out of school, moved out on your own, and went to work."
Shahanah blushed, thinking of that year. "I learned a lot," she said. "It was good of you to let me do it. I'm thinking about going to college now, or getting some kind of job. I'm still waiting for my resident visa."
"I think I'd like most for Shahanah to go to college," said Nazrul.
"It would be nice for you to have a degree," her father said.
"I'd like to study, but we're also hoping to be able to buy a house," she said. "It would help if I had a job."
They talked until late, when her father's head began to nod, and she realized with a start how tired he was. After he left, she and Nazrul cleaned up the kitchen and went to bed.
She lay next to her husband, listening to his quiet breathing. She couldn't sleep. She was thinking about her tears when her father hugged her. It was true that she was glad to see him, but she knew that she was also crying for herself, for her long days of loneliness, for the old life she'd lost, her closeness to her family. She thought that when she saw her father the next day, she might confide in him, as she had confided in him when she was a child.
He was leaving on an evening plane. She met him for lunch after his morning appointment. She found her way easily by subway and thought that maybe she was getting used to New York. In spite of the heat, she felt crisp and competent in a navy blue skirt and a white blouse, bare legs and flat-heeled shoes. Silver bracelets jingled on her arms.
She could see that in her father's eyes she was beautiful.
They went shopping for presents for the family—a watch for her mother, a Walkman for Indira, and a camera for Rajiv, who wanted to take up photography. In a cool, elegant restaurant, they sat across from each other, studying their long menus. "Please, get whatever you like," urged her father.
It was almost as if they were tourists together, just the two of them—the fulfillment of a fantasy she'd had as a child of herself grown up, with her father. She ordered fish and savored every delicate bite. The other diners were all distinguished looking and older, and seemed so serious that she felt quite carefree, by comparison.
She could feel her father entering the fantasy, too. They talked about everything except for themselves. Through dessert and coffee, she entertained him with anecdotes, stories Nazrul had told her, and descriptions of New York life. She asked after everyone she could think of. It seemed to her that her father appeared older, his shoulders a shade more stooped than they'd been last May.
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him what she'd thought about, lying awake last night, but she hesitated. Her father paid the check. "Let me help you pack," she offered. "I'm not yet ready to tell you goodbye."
"I had to check out this morning. My bag's with the porter. I only have to pack the gifts. But I tell you what, I have no other plans. Let's go back to the lobby and talk until I have to leave."
In their last hour together, they sat on a sofa in a quiet corner in the hotel. A crossroads of the world, Shahanah thought, it doesn't feel like it. Her father took her hands in his. "It's not what I envisioned for you. Living in such a place, and so far away. I wish you and Nazrul would move to London."
She realized that she couldn't unburden herself, because that would be disloyal to her husband. "It's not so bad, and it won't be forever," she said. "We're being careful and saving money."
"Are you happy, Shahanah?" he asked wistfully.
He looked away for a moment, and then he said, "I'd like to give you a present. A rug for your new home. When you and Nazrul come to visit, you can pick it out."
"That's very generous of you," she said, and kissed him, and this time she fought the urge and did not cry.
The limousine was waiting to take him to Kennedy. The driver loaded his bag. "Be well," he said to her, "I love you."
"I love you, too."
He climbed in with the other passengers. His face blurred in the glass and then was gone. Shahanah went back inside the hotel and dropped a quarter into the slot of the payphone. She called Nazrul.
"He just left," she told him.
"How are you?"
"I'm about to leave work. Let's do something special. Let's go the Empire State Building."
"I want to see you as I first saw you in the photograph, with the city in the background."
But it was hazy on the observation platform. It was as if the city were burning beneath them, in a myriad of slow, smoldering fires, and all around them was the smoke from the conflagration. The air was hot as an oven.
"It all seems so long ago," Shahanah said.
"Not to me," said Nazrul. "It seems like yesterday when I saw your picture. I thought about you for days. My heart was racing even as I wrote the letter, but once I did it, I didn't hesitate. I mailed it off."
"You never told me what Chandra said."
"No, it's not important."
"You're right," she said, taking his hands in hers and looking into his serious, solid face as she thought, This is the man I am bound to for life. She repeated, "It's not important."
Anne Whitehouse was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, and graduated from Harvard College and Columbia University. She is the author of the poetry collections: The Surveyor's Hand (Compton Press), Blessings And Curses (Poetic Matrix Press), Bear In Mind (Finishing Line Press), and One Sunday Morning, forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. She is the author of the novel Fall Love, available as an ebook and also as its own app on iTunes store from India NIC. She publishes widely in literary magazines.
To download this story by Anne Whitehouse in PDF, click CLRI March 2012