THE GIRL FROM THE WINDOW ACROSS
 
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- by neeman sobhan
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Naureen gave the habitual double push to the handle of the tall, second-floor window of the teachers' common room until it belched open, letting the early Monday morning air into the corners that had been pent-up all weekend, like her. She inhaled Rome's not-too polluted city air. There! That felt good.

Earlier, driving through the morning traffic of Viale Cristoforo Colombo, she had felt like a tired swimmer lunging for shore. Dry land was the humble Sala Docenti, the staff common room of the Faculty of Oriental Studies of La Sapienza. Since the last month, with her home virtually taken over by her in-laws from Dhaka, this humble university room had become a hallowed refuge for Naureen. 

Recently this had become a ritual: on Mondays, when she had mid-morning classes, she came to the institute early just to be the first teacher to unlock the Sala Docenti. It meant something to her, arriving at a pristine, silent space after the unending weekend, crowded with her visiting in-laws. There was Ma-in-law, sweet enough, but always cooking up elaborate Bengali meals involving the splattering of oil and turmeric on the Oyster-Shell Cream purity of Naureen's IKEA kitchen. Meanwhile her youngest brother-in-law Tareq sat inert as a sloth at her computer, continuously scanning Facebook. Her father-in-law, rooted to the TV room couch, dozed to the loud lullaby of the Al-Jazeera news channel or ATN Bangla.

On top of all that, she didn't even know how long her in-laws were staying. Shafiq was a supportive husband, and she tried to hide her irritation from him, but by Monday morning she was panting to escape. Somewhere, anywhere that she did not feel so besieged.

She had started to lie about her class timing and leave the house earlier than she needed to. Even before Shafiq was awake, she slipped out in stockinged feet, shoes in hand, to avoid her early-rising Ma-in-law, who would have insisted on frying her a quickparatha-a hundred calories right there-which she would not have dared to refuse for fear of hurting her feelings or bringing on a lecture about the disastrous effects of dieting on her already thin face. She would rather consume the equivalent calories in the form of a peaceful cappuccino and cornetto at some distant bar on the way to Piazza Vittorio. 

Finally, at the Sala Docenti, she was alone and free, and even managed to do some writing between classes. She leaned over the windowsill and smiled. The familiar view of the narrow downtown street, gritty and bleak, so different from her green suburban neighbourhood with its apricot-tinted villas, had not vanished overnight. The scuffed sidewalks of Via Principe Amedeo stretched out below. Nothing princely about it anymore, this street was now lined with run-down buildings that must have been finepalazzos once. The windows facing her were so close she could see into those that were open. Shabby or, to be fair, rootless people lived there, obviously; people who underlined their impermanence by not washing the windowpanes nor bothering to hang curtains or put even a tiny plant on their sills. Could one say: windows were the eyes to the soul of a house? She must jot that down. Anyway, the windows here certainly said something about the sort of people who lived in this area.

One day, when her own car had gone for servicing and Shafiq was dropping her at class, Tareq, who had accompanied them, remarked, "This is University of Rome's Department of Oriental Studies? Such a boring modern building! I thought it would be something neoclassical, all columns and statues. And Bhabi, such a seedy area! It could be Old Dhaka!"


"Or Purana Paltan, where you grew up, may I remind you?" Naureen had retorted, surprised to feel so defensive. After all, this area of Rome meant so little to her.

"Purana Paltan was an aristocratic area once," Tareq said. 

"So was this," Naureen shot back as she gathered her briefcase and handbag. "Anyway, this is an old quarter of the city, overpopulated by immigrants. What do you expect? And you living in Dhaka, which has become one huge slum-you should talk!"

Shafiq's urbane voice interjected, for her benefit, she knew. "Listen dear boy, Rome's Piazza Vittorio and Esquiline area are like the Latin Quarter of Paris. It's the throbbing, ethnic heart of Rome. The seediness comes with the territory."

Naureen was mollified enough to laugh, "Okay, hardly the Quartier Latin! Or without the charm of the French, and full of rustic Bengalis to boot. But it's not that bad! And our institute may not be within the old campus, but it has a quaint courtyard inside. I'll show you around sometime." She reached through the window to pull Tareq's ear. "Now, go get some culture. You're no better than the Bengalis here who know nothing of historical Rome. At least see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, while you're in this area." 

Of course, the truth was that Naureen felt no differently from Tareq. If anything, she detested this area. It reminded her too much of Nawabpur, the original aristocratic section of Old Dhaka, where her elder sister, till the events of a month ago, lived with her husband and little son. But why Asma Apa, in these modern times and with her education and privileged upbringing, had submitted in the first place to live in a joint family situation with her conservative, once-affluent in-laws, and in derelict old Nawabpur at that, Naureen had never understood. 

But then who would have imagined that here in Italy, Naureen herself would be frequenting such a dingy neighbourhood. And for what? Not financial gain! University teachers in Italy got peanuts. Yet here she was: Naureen Omar, daughter of an erstwhile ambassador, a graduate in English Literature from CUNY, wife of a UN official and now, out of sheer boredom, turned into aprofessoressa, teaching a handful of young Italians enough Bengali to fulfill their foreign language requirements and pass theLaurea exams towards degrees in a slew of new-fangled liberal arts subjects that she herself would have loved to enroll in.

Still, she had to admit that she had become fond of her job and felt a sort of affection, if not for this locality, certainly for this room and this particular view from the Sala Docenti window. Her bit of Roman Nawabpur, Naureen smiled. The next instant, her thoughts flew to Old Dhaka. Habitual affection: was that how Asma Apa also felt about Nawabpur and her home there?

The sisters had grown up the same, living with their diplomat parents in gracious apartments and houses all over the world-Istanbul, Brussels, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. She imagined her sister looking out from the arched windows of her in-laws' crumbling ancestral home. What did Asma Apa see every day? A squalid courtyard where once upon a time, Victorian horse carriages used by Nawabs and their veiled Begums and daughters, were tied up. This space had been taken over by the crawling, creeping tentacles of alleys, where rainwater accumulated and a fungus growth of tea stalls and tailor shops flourished under tattered awnings by day and the bleary light of the lampposts by night. Under Asma Apa's window, riksha pullers bargained loudly with passengers in Dhakaiya-accented Bangla, while street hawkers smoked biris and with loud hacking noises spat out phlegm and betel juice on dark walls afflicted with the leukoderma of tattered political posters. From mildewed balconies and narrow doorways, haggard mothers yelled at children playing cricket on the street.

Naureen could almost hear them. Then she realised that the noise was coming from below her window, at the corner of Via Principe Amedeo. Oh! Great! Some idiot had parked his delivery van right in front of the Joi-Bangla grocery shop and the Chinese shoe store, clotting the flow of morning traffic. Naureen rolled here eyes. And where were the vigili now? They were usually strutting about in their white uniforms dispensing traffic fines left and right.

A harangue of honking car horns drifted up to Naureen. Like a cloud of smoked bees, she thought as she squelched shut the window over the noise. But she did not turn away. Something had caught her eye in the open window of the tenement directly opposite her. The distance between the buildings on this narrow street, she had always thought, was near enough to pass a long extendable IKEA curtain rod from her window to the one across, and far enough for the humdrum lives on view to transform in her eyes to the almost operatic.

Just the other day, at a window on the floor above, she had seen a dark, stocky man in an apron streaked with turmeric stains, smoking the butt end of a cigarette while stirring something that was not visible. The scent of curry had wafted down to Naureen as he opened the window to yell down at someone in the street in a Bangla dialect. She only caught the Italian word 'permesso di soggiorno' from the man below and the Bengali word 'mishti,' or sweets, from the cook above to surmise that the scene was the beginnings of a celebration over one of the men acquiring a residence permit and working papers. 

And now, another act was opening in the window across, where a young man and a woman appeared in profile. From their caramel colouring and darkly etched features, it was quite apparent to Naureen that the couple was Bengali, too. But what snared her attention was the couple's almost feral posturing and wild gesticulations. Clearly, they were in the middle of a fight.

When it happened, however, her shut window prevented Naureen from hearing the stinging echo of the man's sudden slap, but she saw the woman's head swing to the side. The man turned and disappeared inside, leaving the woman gripping the windowsill, her expression tight and venomous, her angry eyes flicking and darting about, looking out. Her gaze seemed to stop briefly at the Sala Docenti window. 

Naureen slipped aside. Her breath came fast. Was that how it had all started for her sister, too? An unwitnessed slap, perhaps in a bedroom, oppressive with a carved four-poster bed and ornate Indo-Victorian furniture.

When Naureen peeked, the girl had withdrawn. The traffic noise also seemed to have ceased. She reopened the window, and just then, at street level, the young man emerged from the mammoth door of the old palazzo. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a cheap blue windcheater, he was not unlike the many young men Naureen saw everywhere. Once she had written about them in the Institute's journal, translated into Italian: 

All over the city, and this piazza between the Terminal and our Institute, immigrant Bengali youths with hungry hearts hawk bags and shoes and trinkets and racks of clothes from sidewalk stalls, hoping to realise their dreams of a better life, redeeming their expensive and difficult journey to a strange land.

Naureen craned her head to watch the young man and try to see if his face betrayed remorse or anger or confusion. But his expression was inscrutable as he walked past Lucky Travels, the Bengali agency where she had bought tickets to go to Dhaka last December. He passed the Ruposhi Bangla Alimentari grocery where Naureen needed to buy the packets of cumin powder and tamarind paste requested by Ma-in-law yesterday. Now the young man hesitated in front of a call center, which reminded her to buy a prepaid phone card, either Happy World or Love-Talk, to call Asma Apa about her decision either to go back to Aftab or to file for divorce after the latest incident. 

Naureen glanced at the building opposite. The girl was back at the window, her hair pushed back from her face and tied up in a hard, decisive knot, both her thumbs busily working on a message on her cell phone. On the street below, the young man walked on, hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched.

"Buon Giorno!" Someone had entered the common room. Naureen turned to respond. It was the pretty lecturer of Chinese. When she turned back to the window, the girl was not there. Naureen glanced at the clock. Half an hour to her class. She knew she should prepare for today's lesson: the doing verb 'fare' in Italian and 'kora' in Bangla. She had a list: bajar kora, to shop; gaan kora, to sing; ranna kora, to cook; biye kora, to marry; jhogra kora, to fight.and surely not inevitably: mardhor kora, to beat up.

But exactly when had this all started? And how was it that Asma Apa had not shared anything with her? In spite of the three years difference between them, they had been close as sisters. When the first proposal of marriage came for Asma, they were living in Washington, D.C. Naureen was in her last year at Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Maryland, and Asma was a sophomore at George Washington University. Their father had turned down the proposal, saying that the doctor, finishing his third year of residency at a New Jersey hospital, was too old for her. 

In retrospect, Naureen always thought that he would have been far better for Asma Apa than Aftab, who had burst on them a month later, suddenly and dazzlingly like the sun for which he was named. And like the sun, he had blinded them all. He was the son of a family friend, visiting relatives in Canada and on his way back to Dhaka. 

Far too handsome for his own good, with those laughing, slightly dissolute hazel eyes, he was the right age but the wrong temperament for shy and serious Asma. He was high-strung, high-spirited and mercurial most of the time, with short withdrawals into melancholy that gave him a romantic aura. Except for Naureen, who found his charm and overly courteous manners somewhat fake, he had enchanted the whole family, especially their mother. At their mother's insistence, they all went on tedious trips to Skyline Drive, Luray Caverns, Harper's Ferry and the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. And on these outings Naureen observed Aftab drawing Asma out from her shell. 

Nobody quite found out what he did back home, except that he was in the family business and heir to the family's wealth. Nor did they know what his exact educational qualifications were, impressed enough just by his impeccable English. Their parents knew his uncle, and the fact that the grandfather had been a diplomat during Pakistan times put Aftab in a favoured position with Baba. 

Naureen remembered one particular evening, an outing. It was Asma Apa's birthday, but their parents had to go to an important reception. Aftab had effortlessly managed to get permission from their mother to take both sisters out. They had dined at a self-consciously charming restaurant in Georgetown, where the corner table, with its little red-shaded lamp, was too intimate for three people. Later, Aftab had driven them to the Tidal Basin area to walk off the desserts that he had shared with both girls, though his fork had lingered on Asma's cr�me br�l�e, Naureen had noted. 

Walking up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Naureen found she was the only one chattering away. She flopped down on the steps at the feet of the skeletal president who gazed for all eternity at the Reflecting Pool. In a nameless rage, Naureen glanced at Asma and Aftab as they stood leaning against a column, wallowing in an indecent pool of complicit silence. They were not even looking at one another, yet they seemed locked in an embrace of mutual awareness. Their fingers must have touched in the dark. 

Naureen knew at that moment that she had lost her sister. Not just to a man, but to a fate that loomed larger than the shadow cast by the giant sitting above them brooding over some dark future. The breeze from the Tidal Basin was not cold but Naureen shivered as she stood up, breaking the moment. 

That long-ago chill invaded her now. It still made her angry that she had not trusted her blind, childish instincts that day to pull Asma away from those hypnotic eyes that even after all these year kept her sister ensnared. She pursed her lips as she gathered her notes. She would have to talk to Asma soon. 

In the street below, the girl had emerged from the building. Dressed in a shalwar-kameez topped by a sweater and shawl, and with her hair in a ponytail, it was obvious that she could have looked prettier than she did just then as she stood glancing to her left and right. A woman in a sari pushing a pram came out of the building. The girl turned away to delve into her bag, but left off as soon as the woman was gone. Just as Naureen spotted the girl's partner, 'the slapper,' walking back, the door of the Sala Docenti squeaked open and she heard a meek voice saying, "Scusi, professoressa, ma ha visto per caso Professor Santori?"

Naureen ignored the interruption, but from the silence behind her it was clear the Chinese teacher had left. She turned around, "No, he has not been in yet." Below, the young man stood talking to the girl, his head lowered. She was facing away. All of a sudden she turned to him and gave his chest a savage push. He lost his balance, took a step back and then swayed into place only to receive two more shoves on his shoulder. 

Behind Naureen, the door opened and she heard Professor Santori enter, chatting in his nasal voice with a student, then the scraping of chairs and thumping of books at the conference table. Naureen pretended to stretch at the window. The girl's flinty voice drifted up to Naureen, ".ki bhabso? Amar kono maan shonman naayi? You think I have no self-respect?" Naureen would have applauded had it not been for Professor Santori coming up to the computer near the window. 

"Posso?" he asked.

"Si! Si! Prego! I was just leaving for my class." Naureen picked up her briefcase and bustled out of the room. In the open corridor, she slowed her pace. Italian professors entered the classroom at least ten minutes late. Today she had arrived too early. She put her things down on the desk and leaned against it. She really should get a phone card and call Asma today. But what would she say to her now? 

Asma had always said that Aftab was more tractable when they were by themselves. Something in him changed when he was in the milieu of his family home where he was constantly aware of disappointing his father's expectations by failing at a career. And even as his mother pampered his ego, she pressured him to renovate the house and bring the family back their former glory. Burdened by his parents demands and with no prospect of a job, he took out his frustrations on his wife, Naureen thought acidly. 

Earlier she had demanded to know why Asma still continued to live with her in-laws instead of going ahead with her plans to move to their own place away from Old Dhaka. Since Baba's death, their mother was waiting for the sisters to convert the Gulshan house into independent apartments. Why couldn't Asma and Aftab build two apartments, move into one, and rent the other, using the proceeds to finance the renovation of Aftab's parental home? Naureen's practical mind could see everything clearly, as if she were walking around IKEA trying to solve her closet and wardrobe problems. If only her favourite store offered solutions to family problems too, along with its storage and organizing products.

Asma had replied in that flat, anemic voice of hers that Aftab's brittle male ego shattered to crumbs at the mention of living on his wife's property or even using income generated from it. It was not so much Aftab's chauvinistic position that always made Naureen want to scream, but Asma's acceptance of it without reaction or rancour. 

Naureen's disappointment and humiliation over what her beautiful and talented sister had been reduced to made her feel like a victim, too. She could not face her own in-laws when they solicitously asked about Asma's 'situation.' Naureen's own accomplishments and domestic contentment were reduced to ashes in her mouth. Her mother was so wrapped up in the woes of her elder daughter that she had no time to spare for Naureen and had never even visited her in Rome. She said, "I am just so grateful you are well settled. You have a gem of a husband and wonderful in-laws who never complain that you are still not ready to have children. Really, my dear, it's about time. Still, I don't worry for you. But poor Asma needs me to be around. You know how she is, only reaching out when she can't take it anymore." 

What annoyed Naureen the most about her mother in this situation was that she still found it hard to believe that a "sweet-natured fellow like Aftab" would raise his hand to his wife. Naureen missed her father most at these times. If Baba were here, would her mother say silly things like: "With me Aftab is still so charming and considerate. The other day, when my blood pressure shot up and everyone was too busy, he took me to Doctor Islam's clinic, making me laugh with his hilarious comments."

Naureen had shot back, "Ask your precious son-in-law to save his humour for his wife." 

Her mother sighed. " It's complicated, dear. Aftab has been unlucky. It's a bad time for him. None of his projects have been successful. They are waiting. Meanwhile."

"Yeah, meanwhile it's Asma Apa who walks on eggshells all the time, never knowing what sets him off!"

"Oh! Naureen. You think I don't know all this? In fact, I'm worried because Asma has recently become the vice principal of the school, and instead of being happy and sharing this news, the poor girl has kept it secret from Aftab. One doesn't know how he might react knowing she is doing so well."

"Oh! For heaven's sake! And what if Aftab hears about it from another source and reacts to her for not telling him?" 

And this was exactly what had happened. After this most recent violent episode, Asma had left and gone to their mother. The time before, she had gone right back to Aftab after a few weeks. Now it had been almost a month and she was still holding out. The arrival of Naureen's in-laws had coincided with this period, and she had not had the time or privacy to call Asma. Dhaka was ahead of Rome by four hours, and Asma was in school all day and did not like to take personal calls at work. By the time Naureen returned home and the long drawn-out business of family dinner was over, it was already past midnight in Dhaka. On her days off from teaching, her in-laws were always around. So, she kept postponing the phone call. 

Now she took out her cell phone and started to text Asma. Stay strong. Don't give in. Will call on Friday around your lunchtime.Then she stopped to do a mental checklist. Twelve noon in Dhaka would be eight in the morning here in Rome, but Ma-in-law was up then. Seven or six, were not good either. Perhaps, five o'clock? Oh! God, to get up so early just to give a pep talk about divorce to poor Asma, for whom it would be nine in the morning of a holiday. But it had to be done. Will call on Friday, 9:30 your time.She pressed 'send' and just then her cell phone rang. 

"Pronto?" Naureen responded in a solemn, professorial tone.

"Slamalekum Apa, my name is Rezwana Sultana." The voice was sweet, the Bengali pronunciation cultured. "I run a Bengali Ladies club in Casilina and a Music school for Bengali children, the Rome Shishu Niketon. I heard you speak at the Lalon Festival organised by the embassy and wanted to invite you to our meeting on the occasion of Women's Day on March 8."

Naureen said, "That's tomorrow."

Rezwana said, "Truly sorry Apa for this late invitation, but I called you at home last week. Maybe no one gave the message? Today I got your cell number from the lady who picked up the phone."

Naureen muttered aloud, "Oh! That must have been my Shashuri."

Rezwana chirped on with the practiced ease of a salesperson, "Apa, we would be honoured if you would enlighten us with your presence. Some of the other Apas and Bhabis from the embassy and various international organisations here in Rome will also be attending. We would be grateful if you would also speak to us, sharing your experience and your wisdom."

As her students had yet to arrive, Naureen sat down and continued her conversation. "Are you by any chance a friend of Fatema, who has a beauty salon in Casilina?"

"Jee, jee Apa. I live close to her parlour. The meeting will also be near there."

"Quite a few Bengalis live in that area, na?" Naureen asked.

"Quite a few?" Rezwana laughed. "Onek! We are like a little city here. Fatema and I call our neighbourhood Piazza Bangladesh."

"Oh? I always thought Piazza Vittorio was the real heart of Roman Bangladesh." 

"Apa, it used to be so. Now most families have moved to our Casilina area." That other ghetto, Naureen thought. Many of her Italian students whose parents did not live in Rome rented apartments there, making it the new bohemian quarter. 

Rezwana was talking away, "But the fresh arrivals from Bangladesh start out in Piazza Vittorio. My friend Kajo used to rent out rooms in her apartment there. What to say, Apa, I have seen with my own eyes how they crowd a dozen to a room like flies. All sleeping on the floors. Then they rent apartments jointly, employing a cook as in a 'mess.' But once these chaps get steady jobs and marry, they move out to our area." 

After the briefest pause Rezwana asked, "Apa, where do you live? I'm sure, in EUR or Laurentina, outside the cramped ganjaam of the centro and our area, right?" 

"Beyond EUR. A residential area called Casal Palocco. You have heard of it?" 

Naureen heard Rezwana's pleasure from the lilt when she exclaimed, "Oh! Where the foreigners live?" Naureen knew that struggling educated immigrants like Rezwana, for whom Rome was life in claustrophobic ethnic communities and not 'foreign' enough, desired the likes of Naureen to live far away from them, in some imagined better world to which they aspired for their children. 

Students were now trickling into class. Naureen's voice quickened, "Listen, I have to go. Text me the time and place of your event. I'll be there."

The meeting turned out to be at a pizzeria run by Rezwana's husband and his Italian partner. This part of Rome was, indeed, the new up-and-coming Bengali enclave, where other ethnic communities also lived and worked. Some of the walls were adorned with graffiti in Bengali and Arabic. Naureen had come to the area a few times to Fatema's beauty parlour. At first, to encourage her, but later because Fatema was cheaper and better than her Italian hairdresser. 

A makeshift dais had been created and a plastic table set up for the speakers to sit at. On the wall were posters in Bangla for Woman's Day and some with slogans, among them a few against domestic violence. The room was full of overdressed women in gaudy saris, already sitting in rows on white plastic chairs. Their mixed perfume of jasmine and rose twisted up like ivy through the undergrowth of the yeast and melted mozzarella scents of the pizzeria. 

Naureen looked around. She expected to see the female officials of the Bangladesh embassy and the embassy wives, who always attended events organised by the immigrant community; but she was surprised and relieved to see Putul and Sabera Bhabi, whose husbands, like Shafiq, were senior officials of UN agencies. They were all as familiar as relatives after spending years together in the same city. 

Putul, in a chiffon sari and a string of pearls, waved to her. "I didn't know you were coming, Naureen. We could have come together."

"Oh! I came straight from class." Her gaze traveled over the two hibiscus flowers hand-painted on the hanging end of Putul's sari. "Wow! Is that one of your recent creations?" Naureen asked.

Putul spread out the anchal like a tapestry. "Not bad, huh? Didn't know what to wear. Never been to these gatherings. This Rezwana phoned to say she had heard me sing Tagore at some embassy function and could I talk about the emancipated women of his era. You think these ladies are interested?" 

Sabera Bhabi had been a political activist and social worker in her youth. She said, "We ought to make an effort to encourage and inspire these ladies. I feel guilty that we cannot include them in our UN Ladies club activities nor mix with them socially. Such a motley group! But I felt we should show our solidarity, at least on Women's Day."

Fatema appeared in a glittery embroidered sari. Behind her was another woman in a similar sari. She was introduced as Rezwana, who gushed into a flowery welcome and led them to the speakers' table. After the meeting was formally opened, Rezwana introduced the female counselor of the embassy as an accomplished and extraordinary woman. The lady received resounding applause by saying, "Every woman is special. Each of you here is extraordinary. oshshadharon."

Naureen was the second-to-last speaker, so she had chosen to sit at the far end of the table. As she waited for the poetic speech, which was only in bud, to slowly blossom to its finale, she looked around the audience. And there she was, in the third row. The girl she had seen in the window across from the Sala Docenti. 

She looked prettier today and appeared even more poised than the others, or perhaps it was her air of detachment. She was not in a sari but her shalwar-kameez ensemble was quite smart, and she looked taller than Naureen remembered, not as fragile. Her shoulders were held back, her chin out.

"Who is she?" Naureen whispered to Rezwana sitting next to her at the table. 

"Apa, from what I have heard, she is newly married, arrived a year ago." Rezwana whispered back. Then, realising that the booming microphone in the small room made whispering unnecessary, she spoke in a low but normal voice. "Her name is either Mukta or Mukti and she is better educated than her husband. People say he married her under false pretenses, giving her father wrong information about himself, saying he is a 'businessman' here. She is naturally disappointed and looking for a job. She is smart enough."

The lady next to Rezwana, the vice president of the club, made a face. She leaned over and though her voice was low it was sharp as vinegar. "Who, that one? I'll tell you about her, Apa. Since Miss-High-and-Mighty landed here, she's been nothing but trouble. Her husband Joshim respects my hubby as an elder brother, always "Bhai this," "Bhai that." He would come to my husband's shop and cry to him, complaining that she was disrespectful. And on top of that-chee-chee!-apparently she started an affair with an Italian film student who had gone with Joshim to their district town in Bangladesh to do a documentary about their wedding and life on returning here. Since then, becoming a heroine has gone to Madam's head. People say their marriage is doomed, and she has threatened to walk out," she sniffed.

Naureen looked away from her to the audience. The girl was looking at them, as if she knew they were talking about her. In fact, her gaze seemed to be particularly fixed on Naureen. She thought about all the oily platitudes she had planned to pour over her and all these ladies. In a notebook she had scribbled what were truths, with a wriggling question mark at the end: 1) In education is a woman's salvation? 2) Inner strength is a woman's real weapon? 3) Patience is a woman's true ornament? And the unquestioning last statement: 4) Eleanor Roosevelt on domestic violence, "If anyone mistreats you it is because you give them permission to do so." 

Naureen frowned. Perhaps, her speech needed another quotation, to end on a note of hope. Hadn't she read somewhere about dreaming of bringing mountains low or making crooked places straight? Suddenly a memory flashed in her mind. It was that evening of Asma Apa's birthday back in Washington-also the evening before the day Aftab asked Baba for her sister's hand. The three were walking up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Asma Apa had stopped to remark that Martin Luther King had made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech right here. And then she had quoted a passage from it. Aftab had looked at Asma admiringly as she recited. She had blushed, saying it was just that she had written a term paper about it, so it was all fresh in her mind. But he had gone quiet. Had the bastard realised then that she was too good for him and would always be so? 

But what were the words that had stuck with Naureen? She Googled it on her iPhone: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.. From every mountainside, let freedom ring."

She translated it into Bengali. While on the last line she smiled. 'Freedom' translated as 'Mukti.' Afterwards, she might ask the girl her name and say something encouraging if her name was Mukti. If it was 'Mukta' or pearl, she could still make a point about the oyster using the irritant to produce something of value.

It was time for Naureen to face the audience. As she spoke, she could tell from the scraping of chairs and the hum of talk that her speech was not going well with the weary women. The translation, especially the last bit-"Beje uthuk Muktir jhonkaar"-sounded a bit forced. The applause was tepid, and when Naureen looked at the audience, the girl seemed to look at her with disdainful eyes. 

While the closing remarks were being made, Naureen's phone flashed a new message. It was from Asma: Friday not good. Have decided to give it another shot. Aftab and I are going to Kolkata on Thursday. Chat on return.

The speakers were being led to a table with trays of tiny pizzas, samosas and other snacks. Naureen was not hungry and felt a headache coming on. She scanned the milling crowd of ladies who came up to meet the speakers. Mukta or Mukti was not there.

On her way out with Putul, Naureen brushed against someone. When the tall girl turned, it was she, the girl from the window across. Naureen waited for her to speak. But the girl just turned around with, could it be, the hint of a smirk? 

Naureen felt like slapping her.

Naureen gave the habitual double push to the handle of the tall, second-floor window of the teachers' common room until it belched open, letting the early Monday morning air into the corners that had been pent-up all weekend, like her. She inhaled Rome's not-too polluted city air. There! That felt good.

Earlier, driving through the morning traffic of Viale Cristoforo Colombo, she had felt like a tired swimmer lunging for shore. Dry land was the humble Sala Docenti, the staff common room of the Faculty of Oriental Studies of La Sapienza. Since the last month, with her home virtually taken over by her in-laws from Dhaka, this humble university room had become a hallowed refuge for Naureen. 

Recently this had become a ritual: on Mondays, when she had mid-morning classes, she came to the institute early just to be the first teacher to unlock the Sala Docenti. It meant something to her, arriving at a pristine, silent space after the unending weekend, crowded with her visiting in-laws. There was Ma-in-law, sweet enough, but always cooking up elaborate Bengali meals involving the splattering of oil and turmeric on the Oyster-Shell Cream purity of Naureen's IKEA kitchen. Meanwhile her youngest brother-in-law Tareq sat inert as a sloth at her computer, continuously scanning Facebook. Her father-in-law, rooted to the TV room couch, dozed to the loud lullaby of the Al-Jazeera news channel or ATN Bangla.

On top of all that, she didn't even know how long her in-laws were staying. Shafiq was a supportive husband, and she tried to hide her irritation from him, but by Monday morning she was panting to escape. Somewhere, anywhere that she did not feel so besieged.

She had started to lie about her class timing and leave the house earlier than she needed to. Even before Shafiq was awake, she slipped out in stockinged feet, shoes in hand, to avoid her early-rising Ma-in-law, who would have insisted on frying her a quickparatha-a hundred calories right there-which she would not have dared to refuse for fear of hurting her feelings or bringing on a lecture about the disastrous effects of dieting on her already thin face. She would rather consume the equivalent calories in the form of a peaceful cappuccino and cornetto at some distant bar on the way to Piazza Vittorio. 

Finally, at the Sala Docenti, she was alone and free, and even managed to do some writing between classes. She leaned over the windowsill and smiled. The familiar view of the narrow downtown street, gritty and bleak, so different from her green suburban neighbourhood with its apricot-tinted villas, had not vanished overnight. The scuffed sidewalks of Via Principe Amedeo stretched out below. Nothing princely about it anymore, this street was now lined with run-down buildings that must have been finepalazzos once. The windows facing her were so close she could see into those that were open. Shabby or, to be fair, rootless people lived there, obviously; people who underlined their impermanence by not washing the windowpanes nor bothering to hang curtains or put even a tiny plant on their sills. Could one say: windows were the eyes to the soul of a house? She must jot that down. Anyway, the windows here certainly said something about the sort of people who lived in this area.

One day, when her own car had gone for servicing and Shafiq was dropping her at class, Tareq, who had accompanied them, remarked, "This is University of Rome's Department of Oriental Studies? Such a boring modern building! I thought it would be something neoclassical, all columns and statues. And Bhabi, such a seedy area! It could be Old Dhaka!"


"Or Purana Paltan, where you grew up, may I remind you?" Naureen had retorted, surprised to feel so defensive. After all, this area of Rome meant so little to her.

"Purana Paltan was an aristocratic area once," Tareq said. 

"So was this," Naureen shot back as she gathered her briefcase and handbag. "Anyway, this is an old quarter of the city, overpopulated by immigrants. What do you expect? And you living in Dhaka, which has become one huge slum-you should talk!"

Shafiq's urbane voice interjected, for her benefit, she knew. "Listen dear boy, Rome's Piazza Vittorio and Esquiline area are like the Latin Quarter of Paris. It's the throbbing, ethnic heart of Rome. The seediness comes with the territory."

Naureen was mollified enough to laugh, "Okay, hardly the Quartier Latin! Or without the charm of the French, and full of rustic Bengalis to boot. But it's not that bad! And our institute may not be within the old campus, but it has a quaint courtyard inside. I'll show you around sometime." She reached through the window to pull Tareq's ear. "Now, go get some culture. You're no better than the Bengalis here who know nothing of historical Rome. At least see the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, while you're in this area." 

Of course, the truth was that Naureen felt no differently from Tareq. If anything, she detested this area. It reminded her too much of Nawabpur, the original aristocratic section of Old Dhaka, where her elder sister, till the events of a month ago, lived with her husband and little son. But why Asma Apa, in these modern times and with her education and privileged upbringing, had submitted in the first place to live in a joint family situation with her conservative, once-affluent in-laws, and in derelict old Nawabpur at that, Naureen had never understood. 

But then who would have imagined that here in Italy, Naureen herself would be frequenting such a dingy neighbourhood. And for what? Not financial gain! University teachers in Italy got peanuts. Yet here she was: Naureen Omar, daughter of an erstwhile ambassador, a graduate in English Literature from CUNY, wife of a UN official and now, out of sheer boredom, turned into aprofessoressa, teaching a handful of young Italians enough Bengali to fulfill their foreign language requirements and pass theLaurea exams towards degrees in a slew of new-fangled liberal arts subjects that she herself would have loved to enroll in.

Still, she had to admit that she had become fond of her job and felt a sort of affection, if not for this locality, certainly for this room and this particular view from the Sala Docenti window. Her bit of Roman Nawabpur, Naureen smiled. The next instant, her thoughts flew to Old Dhaka. Habitual affection: was that how Asma Apa also felt about Nawabpur and her home there?

The sisters had grown up the same, living with their diplomat parents in gracious apartments and houses all over the world-Istanbul, Brussels, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. She imagined her sister looking out from the arched windows of her in-laws' crumbling ancestral home. What did Asma Apa see every day? A squalid courtyard where once upon a time, Victorian horse carriages used by Nawabs and their veiled Begums and daughters, were tied up. This space had been taken over by the crawling, creeping tentacles of alleys, where rainwater accumulated and a fungus growth of tea stalls and tailor shops flourished under tattered awnings by day and the bleary light of the lampposts by night. Under Asma Apa's window, riksha pullers bargained loudly with passengers in Dhakaiya-accented Bangla, while street hawkers smoked biris and with loud hacking noises spat out phlegm and betel juice on dark walls afflicted with the leukoderma of tattered political posters. From mildewed balconies and narrow doorways, haggard mothers yelled at children playing cricket on the street.

Naureen could almost hear them. Then she realised that the noise was coming from below her window, at the corner of Via Principe Amedeo. Oh! Great! Some idiot had parked his delivery van right in front of the Joi-Bangla grocery shop and the Chinese shoe store, clotting the flow of morning traffic. Naureen rolled here eyes. And where were the vigili now? They were usually strutting about in their white uniforms dispensing traffic fines left and right.

A harangue of honking car horns drifted up to Naureen. Like a cloud of smoked bees, she thought as she squelched shut the window over the noise. But she did not turn away. Something had caught her eye in the open window of the tenement directly opposite her. The distance between the buildings on this narrow street, she had always thought, was near enough to pass a long extendable IKEA curtain rod from her window to the one across, and far enough for the humdrum lives on view to transform in her eyes to the almost operatic.

Just the other day, at a window on the floor above, she had seen a dark, stocky man in an apron streaked with turmeric stains, smoking the butt end of a cigarette while stirring something that was not visible. The scent of curry had wafted down to Naureen as he opened the window to yell down at someone in the street in a Bangla dialect. She only caught the Italian word 'permesso di soggiorno' from the man below and the Bengali word 'mishti,' or sweets, from the cook above to surmise that the scene was the beginnings of a celebration over one of the men acquiring a residence permit and working papers. 

And now, another act was opening in the window across, where a young man and a woman appeared in profile. From their caramel colouring and darkly etched features, it was quite apparent to Naureen that the couple was Bengali, too. But what snared her attention was the couple's almost feral posturing and wild gesticulations. Clearly, they were in the middle of a fight.

When it happened, however, her shut window prevented Naureen from hearing the stinging echo of the man's sudden slap, but she saw the woman's head swing to the side. The man turned and disappeared inside, leaving the woman gripping the windowsill, her expression tight and venomous, her angry eyes flicking and darting about, looking out. Her gaze seemed to stop briefly at the Sala Docenti window. 

Naureen slipped aside. Her breath came fast. Was that how it had all started for her sister, too? An unwitnessed slap, perhaps in a bedroom, oppressive with a carved four-poster bed and ornate Indo-Victorian furniture.

When Naureen peeked, the girl had withdrawn. The traffic noise also seemed to have ceased. She reopened the window, and just then, at street level, the young man emerged from the mammoth door of the old palazzo. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a cheap blue windcheater, he was not unlike the many young men Naureen saw everywhere. Once she had written about them in the Institute's journal, translated into Italian: 

All over the city, and this piazza between the Terminal and our Institute, immigrant Bengali youths with hungry hearts hawk bags and shoes and trinkets and racks of clothes from sidewalk stalls, hoping to realise their dreams of a better life, redeeming their expensive and difficult journey to a strange land.

Naureen craned her head to watch the young man and try to see if his face betrayed remorse or anger or confusion. But his expression was inscrutable as he walked past Lucky Travels, the Bengali agency where she had bought tickets to go to Dhaka last December. He passed the Ruposhi Bangla Alimentari grocery where Naureen needed to buy the packets of cumin powder and tamarind paste requested by Ma-in-law yesterday. Now the young man hesitated in front of a call center, which reminded her to buy a prepaid phone card, either Happy World or Love-Talk, to call Asma Apa about her decision either to go back to Aftab or to file for divorce after the latest incident. 

Naureen glanced at the building opposite. The girl was back at the window, her hair pushed back from her face and tied up in a hard, decisive knot, both her thumbs busily working on a message on her cell phone. On the street below, the young man walked on, hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched.

"Buon Giorno!" Someone had entered the common room. Naureen turned to respond. It was the pretty lecturer of Chinese. When she turned back to the window, the girl was not there. Naureen glanced at the clock. Half an hour to her class. She knew she should prepare for today's lesson: the doing verb 'fare' in Italian and 'kora' in Bangla. She had a list: bajar kora, to shop; gaan kora, to sing; ranna kora, to cook; biye kora, to marry; jhogra kora, to fight.and surely not inevitably: mardhor kora, to beat up.

But exactly when had this all started? And how was it that Asma Apa had not shared anything with her? In spite of the three years difference between them, they had been close as sisters. When the first proposal of marriage came for Asma, they were living in Washington, D.C. Naureen was in her last year at Walt Whitman High in Bethesda, Maryland, and Asma was a sophomore at George Washington University. Their father had turned down the proposal, saying that the doctor, finishing his third year of residency at a New Jersey hospital, was too old for her. 

In retrospect, Naureen always thought that he would have been far better for Asma Apa than Aftab, who had burst on them a month later, suddenly and dazzlingly like the sun for which he was named. And like the sun, he had blinded them all. He was the son of a family friend, visiting relatives in Canada and on his way back to Dhaka. 

Far too handsome for his own good, with those laughing, slightly dissolute hazel eyes, he was the right age but the wrong temperament for shy and serious Asma. He was high-strung, high-spirited and mercurial most of the time, with short withdrawals into melancholy that gave him a romantic aura. Except for Naureen, who found his charm and overly courteous manners somewhat fake, he had enchanted the whole family, especially their mother. At their mother's insistence, they all went on tedious trips to Skyline Drive, Luray Caverns, Harper's Ferry and the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. And on these outings Naureen observed Aftab drawing Asma out from her shell. 

Nobody quite found out what he did back home, except that he was in the family business and heir to the family's wealth. Nor did they know what his exact educational qualifications were, impressed enough just by his impeccable English. Their parents knew his uncle, and the fact that the grandfather had been a diplomat during Pakistan times put Aftab in a favoured position with Baba. 

Naureen remembered one particular evening, an outing. It was Asma Apa's birthday, but their parents had to go to an important reception. Aftab had effortlessly managed to get permission from their mother to take both sisters out. They had dined at a self-consciously charming restaurant in Georgetown, where the corner table, with its little red-shaded lamp, was too intimate for three people. Later, Aftab had driven them to the Tidal Basin area to walk off the desserts that he had shared with both girls, though his fork had lingered on Asma's cr�me br�l�e, Naureen had noted. 

Walking up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Naureen found she was the only one chattering away. She flopped down on the steps at the feet of the skeletal president who gazed for all eternity at the Reflecting Pool. In a nameless rage, Naureen glanced at Asma and Aftab as they stood leaning against a column, wallowing in an indecent pool of complicit silence. They were not even looking at one another, yet they seemed locked in an embrace of mutual awareness. Their fingers must have touched in the dark. 

Naureen knew at that moment that she had lost her sister. Not just to a man, but to a fate that loomed larger than the shadow cast by the giant sitting above them brooding over some dark future. The breeze from the Tidal Basin was not cold but Naureen shivered as she stood up, breaking the moment. 

That long-ago chill invaded her now. It still made her angry that she had not trusted her blind, childish instincts that day to pull Asma away from those hypnotic eyes that even after all these year kept her sister ensnared. She pursed her lips as she gathered her notes. She would have to talk to Asma soon. 

In the street below, the girl had emerged from the building. Dressed in a shalwar-kameez topped by a sweater and shawl, and with her hair in a ponytail, it was obvious that she could have looked prettier than she did just then as she stood glancing to her left and right. A woman in a sari pushing a pram came out of the building. The girl turned away to delve into her bag, but left off as soon as the woman was gone. Just as Naureen spotted the girl's partner, 'the slapper,' walking back, the door of the Sala Docenti squeaked open and she heard a meek voice saying, "Scusi, professoressa, ma ha visto per caso Professor Santori?"

Naureen ignored the interruption, but from the silence behind her it was clear the Chinese teacher had left. She turned around, "No, he has not been in yet." Below, the young man stood talking to the girl, his head lowered. She was facing away. All of a sudden she turned to him and gave his chest a savage push. He lost his balance, took a step back and then swayed into place only to receive two more shoves on his shoulder. 

Behind Naureen, the door opened and she heard Professor Santori enter, chatting in his nasal voice with a student, then the scraping of chairs and thumping of books at the conference table. Naureen pretended to stretch at the window. The girl's flinty voice drifted up to Naureen, ".ki bhabso? Amar kono maan shonman naayi? You think I have no self-respect?" Naureen would have applauded had it not been for Professor Santori coming up to the computer near the window. 

"Posso?" he asked.

"Si! Si! Prego! I was just leaving for my class." Naureen picked up her briefcase and bustled out of the room. In the open corridor, she slowed her pace. Italian professors entered the classroom at least ten minutes late. Today she had arrived too early. She put her things down on the desk and leaned against it. She really should get a phone card and call Asma today. But what would she say to her now? 

Asma had always said that Aftab was more tractable when they were by themselves. Something in him changed when he was in the milieu of his family home where he was constantly aware of disappointing his father's expectations by failing at a career. And even as his mother pampered his ego, she pressured him to renovate the house and bring the family back their former glory. Burdened by his parents demands and with no prospect of a job, he took out his frustrations on his wife, Naureen thought acidly. 

Earlier she had demanded to know why Asma still continued to live with her in-laws instead of going ahead with her plans to move to their own place away from Old Dhaka. Since Baba's death, their mother was waiting for the sisters to convert the Gulshan house into independent apartments. Why couldn't Asma and Aftab build two apartments, move into one, and rent the other, using the proceeds to finance the renovation of Aftab's parental home? Naureen's practical mind could see everything clearly, as if she were walking around IKEA trying to solve her closet and wardrobe problems. If only her favourite store offered solutions to family problems too, along with its storage and organizing products.

Asma had replied in that flat, anemic voice of hers that Aftab's brittle male ego shattered to crumbs at the mention of living on his wife's property or even using income generated from it. It was not so much Aftab's chauvinistic position that always made Naureen want to scream, but Asma's acceptance of it without reaction or rancour. 

Naureen's disappointment and humiliation over what her beautiful and talented sister had been reduced to made her feel like a victim, too. She could not face her own in-laws when they solicitously asked about Asma's 'situation.' Naureen's own accomplishments and domestic contentment were reduced to ashes in her mouth. Her mother was so wrapped up in the woes of her elder daughter that she had no time to spare for Naureen and had never even visited her in Rome. She said, "I am just so grateful you are well settled. You have a gem of a husband and wonderful in-laws who never complain that you are still not ready to have children. Really, my dear, it's about time. Still, I don't worry for you. But poor Asma needs me to be around. You know how she is, only reaching out when she can't take it anymore." 

What annoyed Naureen the most about her mother in this situation was that she still found it hard to believe that a "sweet-natured fellow like Aftab" would raise his hand to his wife. Naureen missed her father most at these times. If Baba were here, would her mother say silly things like: "With me Aftab is still so charming and considerate. The other day, when my blood pressure shot up and everyone was too busy, he took me to Doctor Islam's clinic, making me laugh with his hilarious comments."

Naureen had shot back, "Ask your precious son-in-law to save his humour for his wife." 

Her mother sighed. " It's complicated, dear. Aftab has been unlucky. It's a bad time for him. None of his projects have been successful. They are waiting. Meanwhile."

"Yeah, meanwhile it's Asma Apa who walks on eggshells all the time, never knowing what sets him off!"

"Oh! Naureen. You think I don't know all this? In fact, I'm worried because Asma has recently become the vice principal of the school, and instead of being happy and sharing this news, the poor girl has kept it secret from Aftab. One doesn't know how he might react knowing she is doing so well."

"Oh! For heaven's sake! And what if Aftab hears about it from another source and reacts to her for not telling him?" 

And this was exactly what had happened. After this most recent violent episode, Asma had left and gone to their mother. The time before, she had gone right back to Aftab after a few weeks. Now it had been almost a month and she was still holding out. The arrival of Naureen's in-laws had coincided with this period, and she had not had the time or privacy to call Asma. Dhaka was ahead of Rome by four hours, and Asma was in school all day and did not like to take personal calls at work. By the time Naureen returned home and the long drawn-out business of family dinner was over, it was already past midnight in Dhaka. On her days off from teaching, her in-laws were always around. So, she kept postponing the phone call. 

Now she took out her cell phone and started to text Asma. Stay strong. Don't give in. Will call on Friday around your lunchtime.Then she stopped to do a mental checklist. Twelve noon in Dhaka would be eight in the morning here in Rome, but Ma-in-law was up then. Seven or six, were not good either. Perhaps, five o'clock? Oh! God, to get up so early just to give a pep talk about divorce to poor Asma, for whom it would be nine in the morning of a holiday. But it had to be done. Will call on Friday, 9:30 your time.She pressed 'send' and just then her cell phone rang. 

"Pronto?" Naureen responded in a solemn, professorial tone.

"Slamalekum Apa, my name is Rezwana Sultana." The voice was sweet, the Bengali pronunciation cultured. "I run a Bengali Ladies club in Casilina and a Music school for Bengali children, the Rome Shishu Niketon. I heard you speak at the Lalon Festival organised by the embassy and wanted to invite you to our meeting on the occasion of Women's Day on March 8."

Naureen said, "That's tomorrow."

Rezwana said, "Truly sorry Apa for this late invitation, but I called you at home last week. Maybe no one gave the message? Today I got your cell number from the lady who picked up the phone."

Naureen muttered aloud, "Oh! That must have been my Shashuri."

Rezwana chirped on with the practiced ease of a salesperson, "Apa, we would be honoured if you would enlighten us with your presence. Some of the other Apas and Bhabis from the embassy and various international organisations here in Rome will also be attending. We would be grateful if you would also speak to us, sharing your experience and your wisdom."

As her students had yet to arrive, Naureen sat down and continued her conversation. "Are you by any chance a friend of Fatema, who has a beauty salon in Casilina?"

"Jee, jee Apa. I live close to her parlour. The meeting will also be near there."

"Quite a few Bengalis live in that area, na?" Naureen asked.

"Quite a few?" Rezwana laughed. "Onek! We are like a little city here. Fatema and I call our neighbourhood Piazza Bangladesh."

"Oh? I always thought Piazza Vittorio was the real heart of Roman Bangladesh." 

"Apa, it used to be so. Now most families have moved to our Casilina area." That other ghetto, Naureen thought. Many of her Italian students whose parents did not live in Rome rented apartments there, making it the new bohemian quarter. 

Rezwana was talking away, "But the fresh arrivals from Bangladesh start out in Piazza Vittorio. My friend Kajo used to rent out rooms in her apartment there. What to say, Apa, I have seen with my own eyes how they crowd a dozen to a room like flies. All sleeping on the floors. Then they rent apartments jointly, employing a cook as in a 'mess.' But once these chaps get steady jobs and marry, they move out to our area." 

After the briefest pause Rezwana asked, "Apa, where do you live? I'm sure, in EUR or Laurentina, outside the cramped ganjaam of the centro and our area, right?" 

"Beyond EUR. A residential area called Casal Palocco. You have heard of it?" 

Naureen heard Rezwana's pleasure from the lilt when she exclaimed, "Oh! Where the foreigners live?" Naureen knew that struggling educated immigrants like Rezwana, for whom Rome was life in claustrophobic ethnic communities and not 'foreign' enough, desired the likes of Naureen to live far away from them, in some imagined better world to which they aspired for their children. 

Students were now trickling into class. Naureen's voice quickened, "Listen, I have to go. Text me the time and place of your event. I'll be there."

The meeting turned out to be at a pizzeria run by Rezwana's husband and his Italian partner. This part of Rome was, indeed, the new up-and-coming Bengali enclave, where other ethnic communities also lived and worked. Some of the walls were adorned with graffiti in Bengali and Arabic. Naureen had come to the area a few times to Fatema's beauty parlour. At first, to encourage her, but later because Fatema was cheaper and better than her Italian hairdresser. 

A makeshift dais had been created and a plastic table set up for the speakers to sit at. On the wall were posters in Bangla for Woman's Day and some with slogans, among them a few against domestic violence. The room was full of overdressed women in gaudy saris, already sitting in rows on white plastic chairs. Their mixed perfume of jasmine and rose twisted up like ivy through the undergrowth of the yeast and melted mozzarella scents of the pizzeria. 

Naureen looked around. She expected to see the female officials of the Bangladesh embassy and the embassy wives, who always attended events organised by the immigrant community; but she was surprised and relieved to see Putul and Sabera Bhabi, whose husbands, like Shafiq, were senior officials of UN agencies. They were all as familiar as relatives after spending years together in the same city. 

Putul, in a chiffon sari and a string of pearls, waved to her. "I didn't know you were coming, Naureen. We could have come together."

"Oh! I came straight from class." Her gaze traveled over the two hibiscus flowers hand-painted on the hanging end of Putul's sari. "Wow! Is that one of your recent creations?" Naureen asked.

Putul spread out the anchal like a tapestry. "Not bad, huh? Didn't know what to wear. Never been to these gatherings. This Rezwana phoned to say she had heard me sing Tagore at some embassy function and could I talk about the emancipated women of his era. You think these ladies are interested?" 

Sabera Bhabi had been a political activist and social worker in her youth. She said, "We ought to make an effort to encourage and inspire these ladies. I feel guilty that we cannot include them in our UN Ladies club activities nor mix with them socially. Such a motley group! But I felt we should show our solidarity, at least on Women's Day."

Fatema appeared in a glittery embroidered sari. Behind her was another woman in a similar sari. She was introduced as Rezwana, who gushed into a flowery welcome and led them to the speakers' table. After the meeting was formally opened, Rezwana introduced the female counselor of the embassy as an accomplished and extraordinary woman. The lady received resounding applause by saying, "Every woman is special. Each of you here is extraordinary. oshshadharon."

Naureen was the second-to-last speaker, so she had chosen to sit at the far end of the table. As she waited for the poetic speech, which was only in bud, to slowly blossom to its finale, she looked around the audience. And there she was, in the third row. The girl she had seen in the window across from the Sala Docenti. 

She looked prettier today and appeared even more poised than the others, or perhaps it was her air of detachment. She was not in a sari but her shalwar-kameez ensemble was quite smart, and she looked taller than Naureen remembered, not as fragile. Her shoulders were held back, her chin out.

"Who is she?" Naureen whispered to Rezwana sitting next to her at the table. 

"Apa, from what I have heard, she is newly married, arrived a year ago." Rezwana whispered back. Then, realising that the booming microphone in the small room made whispering unnecessary, she spoke in a low but normal voice. "Her name is either Mukta or Mukti and she is better educated than her husband. People say he married her under false pretenses, giving her father wrong information about himself, saying he is a 'businessman' here. She is naturally disappointed and looking for a job. She is smart enough."

The lady next to Rezwana, the vice president of the club, made a face. She leaned over and though her voice was low it was sharp as vinegar. "Who, that one? I'll tell you about her, Apa. Since Miss-High-and-Mighty landed here, she's been nothing but trouble. Her husband Joshim respects my hubby as an elder brother, always "Bhai this," "Bhai that." He would come to my husband's shop and cry to him, complaining that she was disrespectful. And on top of that-chee-chee!-apparently she started an affair with an Italian film student who had gone with Joshim to their district town in Bangladesh to do a documentary about their wedding and life on returning here. Since then, becoming a heroine has gone to Madam's head. People say their marriage is doomed, and she has threatened to walk out," she sniffed.

Naureen looked away from her to the audience. The girl was looking at them, as if she knew they were talking about her. In fact, her gaze seemed to be particularly fixed on Naureen. She thought about all the oily platitudes she had planned to pour over her and all these ladies. In a notebook she had scribbled what were truths, with a wriggling question mark at the end: 1) In education is a woman's salvation? 2) Inner strength is a woman's real weapon? 3) Patience is a woman's true ornament? And the unquestioning last statement: 4) Eleanor Roosevelt on domestic violence, "If anyone mistreats you it is because you give them permission to do so." 

Naureen frowned. Perhaps, her speech needed another quotation, to end on a note of hope. Hadn't she read somewhere about dreaming of bringing mountains low or making crooked places straight? Suddenly a memory flashed in her mind. It was that evening of Asma Apa's birthday back in Washington-also the evening before the day Aftab asked Baba for her sister's hand. The three were walking up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and Asma Apa had stopped to remark that Martin Luther King had made his famous "I Have a Dream" speech right here. And then she had quoted a passage from it. Aftab had looked at Asma admiringly as she recited. She had blushed, saying it was just that she had written a term paper about it, so it was all fresh in her mind. But he had gone quiet. Had the bastard realised then that she was too good for him and would always be so? 

But what were the words that had stuck with Naureen? She Googled it on her iPhone: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight.. From every mountainside, let freedom ring."

She translated it into Bengali. While on the last line she smiled. 'Freedom' translated as 'Mukti.' Afterwards, she might ask the girl her name and say something encouraging if her name was Mukti. If it was 'Mukta' or pearl, she could still make a point about the oyster using the irritant to produce something of value.

It was time for Naureen to face the audience. As she spoke, she could tell from the scraping of chairs and the hum of talk that her speech was not going well with the weary women. The translation, especially the last bit-"Beje uthuk Muktir jhonkaar"-sounded a bit forced. The applause was tepid, and when Naureen looked at the audience, the girl seemed to look at her with disdainful eyes. 

While the closing remarks were being made, Naureen's phone flashed a new message. It was from Asma: Friday not good. Have decided to give it another shot. Aftab and I are going to Kolkata on Thursday. Chat on return.

The speakers were being led to a table with trays of tiny pizzas, samosas and other snacks. Naureen was not hungry and felt a headache coming on. She scanned the milling crowd of ladies who came up to meet the speakers. Mukta or Mukti was not there.

On her way out with Putul, Naureen brushed against someone. When the tall girl turned, it was she, the girl from the window across. Naureen waited for her to speak. But the girl just turned around with, could it be, the hint of a smirk? 

Naureen felt like slapping her.

 
 
was published in November 2016
 
 
categories
 
Fiction
    Flash Fiction
    Short Story
Non-Fiction
    Essay
    Interview
    Narrative
Poetry
 
 
 
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