Sonali grimaced as her aunt labored away on the topic of marriage. “It’s too late, you should have listened to me ten years ago, na?” she probed. From the mole on the tip of her nose sprang three wiry strands of white hair. How she had ever managed to attract a man, Sonali had no clue, but she had, and, she had borne six sturdy sons and a daughter. "Don't you want to be happy?" she asked with the imperial air of a smug matriarch.
“Khalamoni, marriage is not the key to happiness,” retorted Sonali, though her words lacked conviction. She pinched her aunt’s pudgy cheek affectionately. "I have you, don't I?"
“Jornia, bring the girl some halva,” her aunt instructed the maid, without asking if Sonali was hungry. The wrinkles on her arms rippled as she straightened the lace doily on her table and returned to the task of shaping pitas on a baking tray for the upcoming Pahela Boishakh lunch.
“Marriage is a waste of time,” insisted Sonali, "bound to end in divorce!” Ever since she had landed in Bangladesh a week earlier, Sonali had been feeling defensive. All her friends were married, with kids, and a razor’s edge of remorse was slicing into her jugular. She should have given Rashad a chance when he had asked her out. Now he was married, with two kids, a decent job, and Australian citizenship. Living in Sydney. Or was it Melbourne?
Jorina placed a dish of halva before Sonali. “Eat! You're too chikna!” she admonished.
Sonali didn’t bother explaining that she was skinny through a well-orchestrated effort that included five days a week at the gym and Atkins every four months. She reluctantly dipped a spoon into the orange mush and lavished the sweetness on her tongue. Carrot halva, her favorite. Khalamoni had remembered.
Khalamoni was only one year older than Sonali’s mother but they were polar opposites. Ammu had been a liberal, outspoken, fun-loving professor at Dhaka University. When Sonali's father abandoned them, Sonali was only four. Ammu took on extra tuition work to make ends meet and verily disappeared from Sonali's life. She would make time only to collect report cards so Sonali meticulously earned straight A's. With every poisha spent wisely, Ammu saved up enough to send Sonali to a university in America.
Sonali graduated magna cum laude, got a top job, an American passport and a spacious apartment in Manhattan – much more than any of her cousins had achieved sitting at home with the traditional ideals of their mother, Khalamoni. Now they were married, with kids and in-laws, happily ensconced in a community of elites in Gulshan, while Sonali was lonely both in Bangladesh and the Upper West side of Manhattan.
“You know Abdul is back,” said Khalamoni, frying a mosquito with an electric racquet. The pithas were arranged on the tray, folded neatly in triangles, with patterned edges.
Back when Sonali was a freshman in college, her aunt had suggested her sons’ friends as suitable candidates. At that time, Sonali was flirting with white boys and an arranged marriage to her cousins’ friend back home seemed a ridiculous idea.
There was one boy in particular whom her aunt had favored. His name was Abdul. Sonali thought Abdul was a funny name, because in Arabic it meant ‘servant’ and you could be an Abdul Rahim, a servant of God, not just an Abdul, but that’s what he was. In any case, she had scoffed at her aunt’s suggestion for years till Abdul finally married someone else. To hear the name some two decades later made Sonali laugh out loud. “Khalamoni, you are relentless! What will you tell me now? He’s divorced and I should give him a chance?”
Her aunt looked offended. Sonali knew her khala’s heart was in the right place and she hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings. Besides, it wasn’t an entirely bad idea. Abdul was fairly good looking and if he was divorced now, perhaps she could meet him, for coffee or dinner. At least they could get married, even if it was too late for her to have a child.
Having a child hadn’t appealed to Sonali in her twenties, but by thirty-five, she was desperate for one. Though Manhattan was the universe’s capital of bachelors, she hadn’t found anyone suitable to father her child, and this bad luck she attributed to her job. Investment bankers had no time for relationships. Not meaningful ones, at least.
“He is NOT divorced!” said her aunt, giving new definition to her look - it was actually a look of shock. Her aunt’s face was plump and often Sonali misread her expressions. Since her mom had passed away, six years ago, Sonali had only seen her aunt twice – on two Christmases three years apart. These short interactions with her only family in the world were heart-warming but not enough to bridge the cultural expanse that loomed between them. “He is back in Bangladesh with his wife and two sons,” she said, “And he is MD of East West Bank.”
Sonali waited for her to get to the point then realized that was the point, there was nothing more. Khalamoni was sharing idle facts. She was no longer trying to set her up. Realizing that even her aunt, the most avid of Cupids, had given up on her, only fed into Sonali's growing sense of doom. There was no hope. Happiness was not for her.
“You do know, it was I who set them up?” her aunt pursued. Of course Sonali knew. Sonali knew of all her aunt’s successes, they were like trophies regularly polished on the book shelf. She had set up all six of her sons, her daughter, three of their second cousins, and four of her sons’ friends. It was her aunt’s passion, her ticket to paradise. She liked to brag that she would go to heaven in a limo, since she had exceeded the required seven set-ups by far.
“Only that silly Zeenat’s marriage didn’t last,” said Khalamoni. “I told her mother not to let her stay in Canada. Western values are not compatible with Eastern marriages.”
“She was too good for him,” Sonali interjected, remembering how beautiful Zeenat had looked on her wedding day. A princess marrying a whiny toad.
“Too independent,” Khalamoni warned. “I should have chosen that Nadia girl, or perhaps Jolly’s daughter, she’s a good cook. I had her potol'er dolma the other day.”
Sonali knew the people her aunt was referring to and yet her mind drifted. Had she become un-weddable? Wasn’t there something to say about her achievements, her wit?
“The car is here,” announced the maid.
“Which car?” asked Khalamoni.
“Lippi's,” explained Sonali. “Lippi runs an orphanage. I told her I’d visit it today.”
“Why waste time there,” asked Sonali’s aunt. “When you could spend that time with family?”
“I'll be back soon,” promised Sonali, eager to get out of the apartment.
The drive to the orphanage was unusually pleasant. Sun streamed in through the windows, colorful rickshaws lined the streets. A street girl sold her a strand of jasmines. Sonali wrapped it around her pony tail.
The orphanage was a dilapidated house in Mirpur, enclosed by a brick wall and a black gate. A crotchety guard let Sonali in. Inside, the room was filled with children of all ages, dressed in old but clean clothes, coloring with crayons on paper strewn across the floor. Lippi and a familiar looking girl sat on a couch at the far end of the room.
“Darling, thanks for coming!” exclaimed Lippi, hugging her. “Was it hard to find?”
“Not at all,” replied Sonali. “This is lovely,” she motioned to the children laughing around them.
“I’m raising artists!” said Lippi. Her long hair framed her thin face. Dark kajol outlined her eyes and a wooden bead necklace hung down to her stomach. “Isn’t it grand?”
“This is my friend Zeenat,” introduced Lippi.
“We've met,” said Sonali, remembering Khalamoni’s story about the divorce. Zeenat was still stunning. Her features were sharp and her lips were pouty. Her skin glowed as if she hadn’t aged a day. Sonali reached out her hand for a shake.
“It’s been over a decade, hasn’t it?” said Zeenat. She embraced Sonali with unreserved affection. Sonali felt silly for offering a handshake to someone so open and expressive.
“Family friends,” explained Sonali in response to Lippi’s raised eyebrow.
Lippi turned to the children. “Kids, say hi to Sonali.”
“Salam alaikum, Sonali apa,” the kids sing-songed.
“Walaikum assalam,” said Sonali.
“Time to play outside,” announced Lippi. Whoops of joy rang out as the kids tidied their art materials and trampled out. The younger children eyed Sonali with unconcealed curiosity.
“Your hair is long?” said Zeenat. “Why don’t you let it loose?”
Sonali was about to explain that it got in her way but her hands were already removing the rubber band. Her hair fell out, cascading over her shoulders.
“Beautiful!” exclaimed Zeenat, running her fingers through Sonali’s hair.
"Come, darling," said Zeenat, grabbing Sonali’s hand. “Let’s go play with the kids!”
Sonali smiled. Who were these women, so confident and stunning, throwing darlings around like spare change? She longed to be one of them, not the insecure shell of a person she had become.
Zeenat held Sonali’s hand all the way to the playground and even there, she did not let go. She perched herself against a tree, and held Sonali’s hand, as they scanned the garden. It was a spacious garden outlined by guava and boroi trees. There were two swings and a small slide, a badminton net and some ducks. Children were skipping rope and running around.
Sonali’s head spun. What would it be like to abandon her career in Manhattan and move to an orphanage in Mirpur? Her palm was embarrassingly sweaty and she wished Zeenat would let it go. Zeenat didn’t seem to notice; she was totally absorbed by the children. “Russel, get the green ball," she called out. "Putul, don’t be shy! Marium, want some water? Jonaki, please share!” Sonali noticed Zeenat’s eyes glistened with… was it unconditional love?
A boy of maybe five came running to them and grabbed Sonali’s other hand. “Let’s play kana machi bo bo!” he pleaded. Sonali agreed, eager for an excuse to escape Zeenat’s hand. She followed the boy to the center of the courtyard. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Rubel,” he replied, with a toothless grin. All his front teeth were missing. He had messy hair and a scar on his cheek. “Give me your orna!” he commanded. Sonali helped him tie her orna into a blindfold around his eyes. Several children joined their game. Sonali spun Rubel three times, then pushed him gently into the center of the circle that had formed around them. “Kana machi bo bo, jakay pau, thakay chou!” he shouted. He flailed his hands around in an attempt to catch one of the other kids. They taunted and teased, taking turns pinching him. He hollered in delight and finally caught hold of a little girl in pigtails.
The girl laughed heartily, a contagious laugh, and soon all the kids and Sonali as well were laughing uncontrollably, so much so that Sonali had stitches in her stomach. She removed the orna from Rubel’s eyes and tied it around the little girl. She spun the little girl and pushed her into the center of the circle. Again there was flailing and laughing and children giggling in delight. This young doll was the smallest in the crowd, unable to catch any of the older kids, so Sonali let herself be caught. This amused the other children to no end and everyone started laughing again. The crowd had grown, with Sonali at the center of everyone’s joy.
Sonali untied the girl’s eyes and the smile she received from her was a mix of awe and pride. “Your turn! Your turn!” the little angel chanted, doe eyes dancing, a dimple on her cheek. She looked much like Sonali had as a child. She could easily have been Sonali’s own daughter, perhaps in another lifetime.
Sonali tied the orna around her own eyes and spun around three times. At the center of the circle, the game was different. She could hear the children around her, their felicitous merriment, but she could not see them. They were no longer poverty-stricken children to be pitied but rather resilient souls to be admired. They were carefree and joyous, something she was not and had not been in years. She wondered what it was that empowered them.
After a few minutes of flailing, Sonali caught Lippi. Again the kids roared in laughter. “Isn’t it fabulous?” said Lippi. “Everyone has the right to happiness.”
Sonali placed the blindfold on her friend and slipped back to the house. There were several doors around the living room. She opened the first one and peered into a room of bunk beds. The sight made her smile. At least these children had somewhere to sleep. What Lippi was doing for them could never be quantified or evaluated. No due diligence could capture the worth of this venture. It was priceless.
The next door she tried was the bathroom. She was about to close it when a foot stepped into the way. It was Zeenat. She walked in behind Sonali and shut the door.
“Hi,” said Sonali awkwardly.
Without a reply, Zeenat placed her hand on Sonali’s chin and drew her in for a kiss. It was a warm and wet kiss. At first Sonali received it passively, but then, as Zeenat pulled her in close, Sonali surrendered to Zeenat’s affection with equal passion and fervor.
The world around her dissolved and her body no longer existed. She was all sensations, ticklish and exhilarated. Butterflies danced in her stomach, fireworks sparked on her lips. Blood rushed to her head and her mind expanded. Suddenly she was one with the universe. The planets realigned, galaxies waxed and waned. She was lying in the crystal clear water of a lagoon and she was the sky drifting through cotton candy clouds and she was floating in a tub full of milk and rose petals and she was ageless, eternal, infinite and complete.
When the kiss finally ended, she found herself wondering how her aunt would react if she heard of this kiss, the cultural norms that were being broken, the uncertainty of her own sexual identity. She found herself staring into Zeenat’s eyes, eyes that reflected none of the conflict that flickered in her own mind, but rather, complete acceptance. Zeenat smiled and let herself out of the bathroom.
Sonali stood frozen, rejuvenated, unaccustomed to unconventional love. All her life she had been searching, but in the wrong places. Perhaps the key to happiness lay not on the beaten path, but off it. Perhaps there were things she had never explored that could lead her to fulfillment and wholeness. She wasn’t sure what was happening to her, but inside her head, new doors were flying open.