Fiction

Autumn Leaves

by Mehreen Ahmed

Quasu was growing up really fast. He was now five years of age and was able to enjoy the wedding. The next day, after the wedding, Mila was in her in-law’s house. Prema, Lutfun, and Nazmun Banu sat with their tea, at teatime in the orchard. Autumn leaves had covered much of the orchard.

“My Quasu is special in so many ways,” Prema declared.

“Of course he is,” Lutfun answered.

“His teacher at school said that he is doing wonders with his studies. He’s far ahead than the rest of the boys in his class.”

“That’s lovely, we all want the best for him,” Nazmun Banu said as she yawned and looked around the orchard.

“Your brother Ashik said, we may now have enough money to send Quasu to an expensive English medium school now. Our business is doing really well,” Prema said.

“That’s an awesome news, but I hope you won’t move out. The house feels a bit empty already, without Mila.”

“Yes, how time flies. Mila was born just the other day. And now? It will be the same for Quasu too. He will grow up like sands sliding, slithering through our fingers,” Lutfun said.

Lutfun didn’t have any children. But she didn’t miss much either with Quasu being around. Little Quasu spent her aunt’s days busy.

“What else does Quasu’s teacher tell you?” Nazmun Banu asked.

“Oh, are you kidding me, sister?” Prema asked.

Prema was aware of a deep undercurrent of bad blood that flowed between Nazmun Banu and herself, although it was all nicely papered over with smiles and etiquettes practised in The House of Chowdhury. These were good at heart, happy go lucky, slightly amoral people. But the bad blood came from another source. It waved though from the fact that while Prema could make a new life coming out of a previous wedlock to marry Ashik and be happy, Nazmun Banu couldn’t. She remained shackled to the same place. It wasn’t as though she couldn’t even if she wanted to but she was hailed as righteous holy, pure ___ the good wife. When Prema stopped for a moment to catch a breath from bragging about Quasu, which she had been doing often to almost everyone’s disapproval, Luftun chimed in,

“Tea anyone?”

“No, no, Quasu would be home soon, I must get his juice ready,” Prema said.

She rose from her chair to go indoors. While Lutfun and Nazmun waited around and looked at each other.

“Oh! She just wouldn’t stop now, would she? Every time we are together, she must brag about how great Quasu is, my Quasu, my Quasu is the best, he is this and that and what have we? As though we don’t know what Quasu is. As though we don’t love him enough,” Nazmun finished in an unabated breath.

“That’s just her, yes, I know it can be irritating. But you know what?” Lutfun asked.

“What?”

“I have seen her other children from her ex coming around here and asking the maids if they could see her.”

“Really? Gosh! What would our amma say?”

“ Mother-in-law knows. She looks the other way,” Lutfun said.

“What a mess! Really! Say, how do you know?” Nazmun asked.

“One day, amma and I were sitting together under the neem tree. She saw them enter through the main gate and asked the gateman. She didn’t ask them to come inside or anything but she overheard them asking about their mother.”

“Hmm how sad, I really feel sorry for those kids,”

Nazmun looked away at the orchard aimlessly and sighed. Lutfun was quiet too after some time, she rose from her chair and ambled through the autumn orchard. She looked at the plantain tree and the mango ripened trees. A bunch of mangoes hung over her. She reached out for one. She twisted it in clock and anticlockwise before she pulled one-off. With the mango in her hand, she looked at it and played with it unmindfully by tossing it up and down in the air a few times, then as the sun downed leaving red streaks in the autumn sky, she returned to where Nazmun had been sitting downcast, amongst the circle of chairs.

“Should we go in, now?” Lutfun asked.

Nazmun looked up at Lutfun and said, “Mila didn’t call today, did she?”

“Not that I know. Why?”

“I wonder how she is in that new place with her in-laws”

“She will be back tomorrow after the Walima celebrations,” Lutfun said.

“Yes, of course, she didn’t mention a honeymoon, yet” Nazmun said.

“They just got wedded, yesterday.”

“Yes.”

“Have you decided what you are going to wear for the Walima?” Nazmun asked.

“Yes, my pink Kanjivaram with the pearl and ruby necklace. What about you?”

“I’ll wear my white Kathan silk, with the diamonds.”

Nazmun rose and stood abreast to Lutfun, as they walked towards the balcony to enter the house. The balustrade of the balcony was covered in green overhanging vines, trees, money plants, and rhododendron fell like a delicate curtain. Lutfun glanced at it and decided that they needed some trimming. As they entered the room, they saw Mrs. Chowdhury sitting quietly by the window. Her walking stick was with her. It stood by her side in the evening’s shadow of a quiet light.

They didn’t know where Prema had disappeared with Quasu. But the telephone suddenly rang in the hallway, breaking this cosmic silence of dusk. Its shrill sound cut through the meditative blissful mood.

“Oh! Who could that be?”

Nazmun hissed in the silence. But before they could reach the phone, Prema had already come out of her bedroom and picked it up?
“Hello,” she answered organising her sari over her shoulder.

“Hello, this is Mila, Is that you Choton?”

“Yes, beta it’s me. How are you?”

“We’re well. Sorry, I couldn’t call you earlier today. We had to go to a feast given in our honour, the newlywed?”

“That is great, enjoy every bit, maa. How are your in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Khan?”

“They’re well. And so is Irfaan. Anything new there?”

“No, not particularly, the house feels empty, now that you have gone. The decorations are still there. Some have been taken down. The yard is a mess at the moment.”

“Have they been taken down? It has been nearly three days, yeah, since the wedding?”

“Yes, already, Quasu misses you a lot, beta. But he’s really doing well in class. He’s at the top of the world right now.”

Lutfun and Nazmun were overhearing this conversation from the other room. Luftun suppressed a giggle, while Nazmun blurted out rolling her eyes, “here we go again.”

“Shh, keep your voice down, she’ll hear us,” Lutfun said.

Nazmun continued to look at Prema until she finished her conversation. Until the receiver was handed to her. Prema paused and looked back at them. She signaled them to come forward. First it was Nazmun, then, Lutfun. The conversation went well over an hour. They talked about girly stuff, about the in-laws, and parties, and the honeymoon. They were planning to go on a honeymoon soon. They were still undecided whether it would be Cox’s Bazaar or Rangamati. Then Mila let Lutfun in on a secret about the wedding night. Lutfun giggled and hid her face from the gazing Prema and Nazmun, so they wouldn’t hear. They got the drift and moved away.

“And then what happened?” Lutfun asked.

“He took me in his arms first. I lay there on his chest, listening to his heartbeat. Then he held me tight, then tighter, until we both had goosebumps all over us. He kissed me first on my forehead, nose, lips. And then …”

“And then? What? Tell me?” Lutfun’s eagerness was obvious.

“I’ll tell you later after we come over for Walima.”

“Yes, that’s tomorrow, I’ll see you soon.”

“See you.”

Mila hung up. It wasn’t Lutfun’s intention at all to smoke out what had happened on the wedding night. But Mila’s spontaneity drew her into their own romance of this special night. Why would anyone be so inclined to find out about such intimacy? But they were. Lutfun was just as eager to listen as Mila was eager to tell. They would have to wait for another celebration now, from the groom’s party The Walima, which took place one or two days after the wedding ceremony. This ceremony was hosted by the groom’s family after which the bridal couple returned to the bride’s father’s house and stayed there for a couple of days before they went back to the in-laws or to their own homes. However, Mila’s case was different. They decided to go on a honeymoon straight from her father’s house after the Walimah.

The next day, Mila’s mother and aunts at The House of Chowdhury were making preparations. There was much to be done. They had to decorate Mila’s room. Loads of garlands were brought in. Lutfun and Prema took the garlands into Mila’s bedroom. Prema walked up first and towards the wooden shutters. She opened them ajar, as a flurries of dust flew everywhere. A slight ray of autumnal sun filmed the dust particle in its narrow tunnel. Lutfun looked at the bed and decided to put a cover on. She walked up to the wooden wardrobe made of ornate old Mahogany.  The doors creaked when she opened them ajar. Lutfun rummaged through the cupboard looking for a new bed cover. Accidentally, she opened the drawers and underneath tons of rubbish, she found some old pictures. They were mostly Mila’s friends, but one friend Lutfun recognised. That was Rahim Ali, in his round spectacles. She kept looking through and found some letters too. Rahim Ali had written Mila letters. Lutfun felt an urge to open them. Old lovers, they were, or nearly, but love which perhaps never died, or ever will. It remained like an undying ember. It was everywhere like a flame of indeterminate direction. She opened one of many letters. It had romance written all throughout. Beautiful words written and rewritten many a moment of un-relinquished love. Words which tried over and over to tie a bond and cajoled her to come closer. Words which flowed like a river, rain in moon drops. Poetry, which expressed how they sat in the rain. She, by his side. Her head lay on his chest. She held him tight and he held her until a raindrop fell on her lips. He held her chin and licked it off slightly off her luscious lips. A fire raged within her. It also raged within him. Romance was born. He carried her indoors. A lightning clapped, a storm brewed. Lutfun read and reread them mesmerised. Then the love making began. He took her top off. A beautiful body was revealed. He kissed it. He kissed every nook and corner of that body until she surrendered. Sweet. It was sweet. Sweet surrender, the storm began. They danced. It was oneness. It was all. It was blissful. Lutfun also read that the writer was not Rahim Ali but taken from the unpublished work of a poet. Lutfun had not heard the name before, until just now. He was a new, unpublished poet.

“Hey, what’re you doing there? Have you found some bedclothes?”

Prema’s shrill, agitated voice brought Lutfun to the present. She closed the drawer in a hurry and pulled out new bed clothes neatly packed in a wrapper on one of the shelves. Nazmun Banu may have bought it some time ago and stuffed it in here. She gave it to Prema. But Prema saw her absent mindedness.

“Is everything okay?”

She asked, as she took the bedclothes out of the wrapper.

“Yeah, sure,” Lutfun said. “Nice bedclothes.”

Prema, held one end of it and Lutfun the other as they both made the new bed together. Lutfun held a lump in her throat thinking how far had this relationship between Rahim Ali and Mila had progressed? Lutfun felt betrayed thinking that Mila had not confided to her about these many letters. The bed was made in silence. The sheets were stretched like fabric ironed on an ironed board, without a single crease. In the meantime, a maid named Shimul entered the room with a hand full of rose garlands for decoration. The three decorated the bed. Some of the heavy garland was laid across the mosquito net stand. They hung down the stand like a hanger. The rest of the roses were spread evenly on the bed. Prema, Lutfun, and Shimul stood back to look at the decoration. The roses looked brilliant in the autumn sun, streaming through the open shutters. A light fragrance pervaded the air as a prelude to the romance which was going to be ensued that night, after the Walimah ceremony of the bridal couple returning to the bride’s parent’s house.

The bed was made and decorated with flowers. They left the room with the windows open to air it for a while. Unless there was a strong wind, there was no reason to close the shutters. Let the room bask in the glow of the mellow autumn sun. As the trio walked out of the room, they found Nazmun Banu in the corridor. She had a bottle of mango pickle jars in her hands. Nazmun looked at them and peeked into the room through the narrow opening of the doors, as Prema was closing it. Nazmun smiled. She liked what she saw. Then she saw Shimul, the maid, who was also standing with them. She extended the jars towards Shimul to sun pickle. Shimul, took them, and walked away. She went towards the roof, to put them out in the sunlight. It dazzled on the cemented roof. The light shone like diamond glitterings on the aluminium jar covers, as she lined them up on the roof’s edge next to each other. She squinted her eyes against the autumnal dazzle. She stopped to glance at the night flowering jasmine hanging over the mossy walls. She saw a few flower petals scattered on the roof. The stem of the shiuli or rather jasmine was a potential orange dye, which could be used to dye clothes. She sauntered towards the fallen flowers and picked at least two hand fulls. She pouched them in her sari and ran downstairs. A gusty wind blew a strand of hair across the face.

The Walimah was just two just hours away. The members of the House of Chowdhury were getting dressed. Shimul rushed from one room to the next running errands for them. Lutfun needed a hairpin to be put in place on the French Knot. Prema needed Shimul’s help with the sari. Shimul sat down on the floor and held the fall of the sari’s pleats as Prema neatly organised them pleats at the top, and secured them by tucking the edge in the petticoat around the waist. Nazmun Banu couldn’t find her matching blouse and called out for Shimul. Shimul then flitted to her room and pulled the blouse from under the piles of saris and jewelry boxes on the bed. Shimul let out a sigh of relief when they were ready and inside the respective four cars, comfortably seated, the cavalcade ensued momentarily towards the Walimah venue, the Malibagh ladies center. Shimul saw them out of and returned to her tiny room in the servant wing, at the back of the house.

It was a silent house now, The House of Chowdhury. The servants were either napping or cooking up bridal meals in the kitchen at the advent of Mila and Erfaan’s homecoming. Shimul walked calmly up to her room under the staircase. She pulled out a dented aluminium pan off a shelf fixed on the wall from the edge of the room. The pan had the gatherings of shiuli flowers. She sat on the floor by the pan and began to separate the saffron coloured stem off the flower petals. Once it was all done, she walked a few steps towards the kitchen. The stoves were off-limits at the moment. Pots and pans occupied the stoves’ craters. Shimul, stood by the door, leaning against it and waiting for a stove to be free. She wanted to boil some water to douse the shiuli stems to unlock the colours. She had a white sari, a gift from Mrs. Chowdhury, a while back. She decided to colour the sari in the shiuly saffron. The only time she was free, before the bridal party returned.

Shimul walked over to her room. Hardly any sunlight entered this time of the day into this room. There was an opening through the roof from which a slight ray of sunlight had entered. In the dim light, she looked in the direction of her belongings. They were her beddings, and a battered trunk. She went over to the trunk and sat down by it. She opened it. The white sari was on top. She only had a couple of clothes in it which she wore every day. She took the sari out of the truck and rubbed over it. The fabric felt smooth and new. It was a hundred percent cotton. She dropped the lid to the trunk and exited the room. Back into the kitchen, her infusion of saffron was in a pan. She unfolded the sari and pressed it in the infusion. She moved the fabric around in the colour. She put a lid to the pan and left it by the door for the colour to seep through the fabric for a few hours.

She walked through the dark yard feeling forlorn. She thought of her wedding day. She thought how it ended suddenly one day when her husband married for the second time. He had jilted her and hurt her. She had stopped living, breathing. One day, she decided to leave and come to Dhaka. She found employment in the House of Chowdhury through a friend’s recommendation. She decided this was a life of freedom. People must marry because of social custom. But there was no other freedom than earning one’s own keep. Trapped in a loveless, broken marriage was like a wheel locked to its spokes. Tied up ruthlessly. The wedding party would be back soon. Shimul found this moment to reflect over her life as a maid. It was still freedom; she was free.

About the Author: 

Mehreen Ahmed is an award-winning author, internationally published and critically acclaimed by Midwest Book Review. One of her short stories won The Waterloo Short Story Competition,2020. Her works have been nominated three times for The Best of the Net,2020. Pushcart Prize nomination,2020.Two times for Ditmar Awards in 2016 and 2019, Aurealis Awards nominee,2015 and nomination for Christina Stead Prize,2018. Her book was announced as The Drunken Druid’s Editor’s Choice, June 2018. Three of her books received Author Shout Reader Ready Awards,2019. One Received Silver. The other two Bronze medals.

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