MYMENSINGH DISTRICT, EAST PAKISTAN, 1967
An hour and forty-five minutes before Nazneen's life began--began as it would proceed for quite some time, that is to say uncertainly--her mother, Rupban, felt an iron fist squeeze her belly. Rupban squatted on a low three-legged stool outside the kitchen hut. She was plucking a chicken because Hamid's cousins had arrived from Jessore and there would be a feast. "Cheepy-cheepy, you are old and stringy," she said, calling the bird by name as she always did, "but I would like to eat you, indigestion or no indigestion. And tomorrow I will have only boiled rice, no parathas."
She pulled some more feathers and watched them float around her toes. "Aaah," she said. "Aaaah. Aaaah." Things occurred to her. For seven months she had been ripening, like a mango on a tree. Only seven months. She put aside those things that had occurred to her. For a while, an hour and a half, though she did not know it, until the men came in from the fields trailing dust and slapping their stomachs, Rupban clutched Cheepy-cheepy's limp and bony neck and said only "Coming, coming" to all inquiries about the bird. The shadows of the children playing marbles and thumping each other grew long and spiky. The scent of fried cumin and cardamom drifted over the compound. The goats bleated high and thin. Rupban screamed white heat, red blood.
Hamid ran from the latrine, although his business was unfinished. He ran across the vegetable plot, past the towers of rice stalk taller than the tallest building, over the dirt track that bounded the village, back to the compound, and grabbed a club to kill the man who was killing his wife. He knew it was her. Who else could break glass with one screech? Rupban was in the sleeping quarters. The bed was unrolled, though she was still standing. With one hand she held Mumtaz's shoulder, with the other a half-plucked chicken.
Mumtaz waved Hamid away. "Go. Get Banesa. Are you waiting for a rickshaw? Go on, use your legs."
Banesa picked up Nazneen by an ankle and blew disparagingly through her gums over the tiny blue body. "She will not take even one breath. Some people, who think too much about how to save a few takas, do not call a midwife." She shook her hairless, wrinkled head. Banesa claimed to be one hundred and twenty years old, and had made this claim consistently for the past decade or so. Since no one in the village remembered her birth, and since Banesa was more desiccated than an old coconut, no one cared to dispute it. She claimed, too, one thousand babies, of which only three were cripples, two were mutants (a hermaphrodite and a humpback), one a stillbirth, and another a monkey-lizard-hybrid-sin-against-God-that-was-buried-alive-in-the-faraway-forest-and-the-mother-sent-hence-to-who-cares-where. Nazneen, though dead, could not be counted among these failures, having been born shortly before Banesa creaked inside the hut.
"See your daughter," Banesa said to Rupban. "Perfect everywhere. All she lacked was someone to ease her path to this world." She looked at Cheepy-cheepy lying next to the bereaved mother and hollowed her cheeks; a hungry look widened her eyes slightly although they were practically buried in crinkles. It was many months since she had tasted meat, now that two young girls (she should have strangled them at birth) had set up in competition.
"Let me wash and dress her for the burial," said Banesa. "Of course I offer my service free. Maybe just that chicken there for my trouble. I see it is old and stringy."
"Let me hold her," said Nazneen's aunt Mumtaz, who was crying.
"I thought it was indigestion," said Rupban, also beginning to cry.
Mumtaz took hold of Nazneen, who was still dangling by the ankle, and felt the small, slick torso slide through her fingers to plop with a yowl onto the bloodstained mattress. A yowl! A cry! Rupban scooped her up and named her before she could die nameless again.
From Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Copyright Monica Ali 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Simon & Schuster.
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