"No matter what… one should never make fun of the prophet" - Barochacha, big uncle said loudly. Big uncle was a calm man, usually. Maria liked him most among her uncles. He was a pious, very disciplined and merry man. And taciturn also. It seemed that the children of the house feared him for his graveness and other uncles for their shouting and bullying. Big uncle never got enraged, at least Maria never saw him.
But that issue infuriated him. He was not only annoyed but angry to an extreme level, his kind face with black and white beard looked a bit sad and his eyes grew red. He believed that anger is haram, forbidden thing for a Muslim. He never shouted and used to wash his hands and face and feet whenever he felt very slight rage.
In the middle of dadi's room, right under the four blade ceiling fan, Big uncle was sweating. Dadi, the ailing grandmother of Maria and a bunch of her cousins (one must lose count if one does not belong to the family, for they were many in number from five uncles and seven aunts, sometimes dadi also forgot which grandchild was begotten from which of her offspring)was lying on the grand palanka, a big bed with wooden railings all around that occupied one third of the room. Rabia apa, an older cousin, said afterwards that the railings were to prevent dada and dadi from falling while they made love.
Dadiwas made half seated, her back and shoulders on two pillows with the help of a maid and Maria's mother. She was a little woman with milk white skin (her face was creased like the film that gathers on the surface of the saucepan where milk is boiled and cooled) and very thin shining white hair that could barely cover her head.Yet she needed coconut oil massaged on her almost empty skull and hair done in a pigtail every night.
She looked at Big uncle and said hilariously, "madirdik cha,beda"…"Look at the ground, my son". Then she asked him to sit down and drink a glass of water. Maria was the one who brought the water from the bedside table on which dadi's brass tumbler full of water from the tube-well was covered with a brass plate.
After Big uncle finished the water dadi asked him not to get excited with silly matters. Then he said that it was unbearable that a Muslim boy would crack a joke about the holy prophet and his name, especially relating it to animals. And one must not subscribe the newspaper that had published such thing.
Dadi then told him a story about one of the Prophet's companions whose real name was Abdar Rahman but the prophet used to call him Abu Hurayrah which means father of the kitten. Obviously it was a joke because people cannot and are not supposed to be fathering cats or anything other than human babies.
Big uncle did not seem convinced and said, "No matter what… one should never make fun of the prophet". Maria never forgot that day, the only time she saw Big Uncle got angry.
Maria was reading in class seven when Big Uncle died. After the death of the most pious man of the family the strictness regarding everything changed, if not completely, almost. Rabia apa and Fatima apa started playing music loudly in their newly bought cassette player. Hit tracks from Bangladeshi and Kolkata bands, sometimes a few Bollywood film songs also. All the children started rising late and missing the Morning Prayer. Maria, because of her fondness of Big Uncle, found it shocking.
But she discovered that her other uncles also got reluctant about prayers and started enjoying Friday afternoon Bangla cinemas on TV, not secretly like before. She didn't remember her father as he died when she only started school. One morning she woke up with the sound of recitation of familiar verses from the Holy Quran in Big Uncle's beautiful voice.
When she went to the long veranda squeezing her eyes she could smell the incense sticks that were burning right beside her dead father's head where Big Uncle was sitting cross-legged, holding the holy book in his two hands and reciting verses. Maria saw tears rolling down from his eyes but surprisingly enough, his voice did not crack at the least.
From that day on, Maria felt like calling him abba, as her real abba went back to the Almighty (dadi later explained, everybody has to return to the Almighty, so nothing to mourn over) she needed a substitute. But her four year old logic could not overcome her same age sense which said it is improper to call Big Uncle abba or baroabba although she called his wife baroamma, big Mummy.
Only after Big Uncle's death Maria and the rest of her cousins learned that Big uncle was a half-brother to Maria's father, and definitely, to the rest of the uncles. This would not have been revealed if dadi would not insist on avowing her share of her husband's property to baro amma and her children as barochacha inherited nothing from his step father's property. But baro amma refused to take the favor as she thought it would provoke more conflict later if dadi would have disowned rest of her children and declared baro chacha as her only heir.
Maria's best friend Pia could not bear the aroma of incense sticks and rose water that are sprinkled over everybody during milaad mafils as she felt those are meant for funerals. In the annual milaad mahfils of the school Pia always chose the rear seat just to avoid the smell of burning incense sticks decorated in front of the moulovi sir and save her head from getting wet by the rose water. When Pia explained the reason behind her sitting in the back of the mahfil, Maria realized that she loved both these smells as she found that those were the odor of barochacha, her secret abba.
Dadi's death did not bring so much catastrophe as barochacha's did. It was a long awaited death. Apart from Rabia and Fatima none of Maria's cousins could remember dadidoing anything else other than lying on her grand palanka with wooden railing, four blade fan moving over her head and yet a taalpakha either in her hand or a maid's or a daughter in law's who was sitting or standing nearby.
The hand fan made by palm leaf was also a weapon for her, she would hit some naughty grandchild with the handle of it or throw it to the neighboring cats that might have entered her room to steal food or milk. Despite being pious, she did not have any affection for cats. She said cats are ungrateful creatures and they always cursed the landlords to become blind so they could steal more whereas dogs blessed the landlords for having more children so they could get enough to eat as children would be throwing away the foods they do not like.
Maria too grew up believing that cats are not good enough pets. She developed a kind of psychological allergy to the creature. This is the reason why she was a bit taken aback when Abu Hurayrah's cat happened to touch her ankles. It was a gray cat, slick but healthy. Eyes of the cat were not colored, Maria jumped a little and when looked below she met those curious eyes. It was only after dadi's death that she started wearing jeans the legs of which she would fold a bit when she went out.
Before getting back home she would lower them down and made sure that her ankles were not exposed. Otherwise, somebody might have declared a ban against jeans itself. She could not trust the elderly members of her family, though they changed many of their own habits after barochacha passed away. Most of the girls of her class wore jeans with their knee long kameezes when they left school and started college. It would have been a bit old fashioned to wear shalwar all the time no matter how many varieties were brought in this lower attire.
Maria didn't know the real name of Abu Hurayrah, of course she never asked him the name of his cat either. She met him on the grocery shop he ran in the neighborhood. Even on the hot days of June, he would wear a black turban on his head and a long angrakha or alkhalla. She didn't know what the dress was called. But surely it was not the usualPanjabi or kameez. Sometimes he wore shalwar and kurtas that are knee long and had rounded edges.
With a closer look she discovered that he put on surma under his eyes that made him look like the villains of Hindi cinemas where any Indian actor would have been given a costume that included turban and make ups withsurma on a pair of male eyes to make him look like a Pakistani or a bigot Indian Muslim who can easily kill his sister for falling in love with a non-Muslim.
Abu Hurayrah never looked at Maria. Unlike his cat, his eyes did not have any inquisitiveness or query. Or perhaps he had, but he avoided eye contact with Maria, deliberately. Nor did he look straight to her breasts like moulana sir of her school who started sobbing and hiccupping on every occasion when he was given the opportunity to perform munazat for a collective prayer.
Even when she purchased cigarettes, full pack for her boyfriend and three or four for herself, Abu Hurayrah never bothered to see and check which girl is trying to cross the line. In all other shops, the men saw her with disapproving looks in their eyes, a few could avoid the temptation of asking for whom she was buying those, others failed. (2nd part of the story will be appeared in the next issue)
The writer teaches at Jatiya Kabi Kazi Nazrul Islam University
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