“Life went on for all of us. We felt so good and holy about ourselves; there was something so sacred in our magnanimity.”
When Zinnia moved to our campus she was the classic new kid in town. Our gang was about nine or ten years old, and had known each other from almost the day we were born. We knew who had what hidden under their mattresses, who had a pash for who, who picked their nose in class and who went peeking at the long stretch of bushes by the dam-a favorite dating place for the varsity students. Zinnia arrived amid all this-a stranger, an interloper. We heard from our parents that they had been living in Chittagong, a town close to the sea, as her father taught there.
My mother, who, along with the other campus aunties, went to look over their house almost as soon as they arrived, reported that she was pretty, took music lessons and had a voice like an angel. She could also recite Rabindranath Tagore’s Nirjhorer Shapnabhanga and Nazrul’s Bidrohi from memory. None of these details served to make any of us well disposed toward her.
Once Zinnia’s family moved in, it seemed natural that they be invited over to our house, and to mom it seemed natural that Zinnia and I ‘be friends and play together’. I didn’t think much of this idea and my mother smiled when she said it, but I knew an order when I heard one. I decided to be nice to her.
When she arrived, however, I found that it was real easy being nice to her. She was one of those girls-you know, smiled a lot and giggled at the right time. Didn’t show off that she had already seen the sea or could sing or could spout lines by the national poets on request as if someone had flicked on a switch within her. Perfectly willing and able to jabber on endlessly about the most secret and exciting of subjects (sex and boys). New kid though she was, after the initial period of everyone feeling out exactly where she would fit in, she was okay.
Zinnia loved rain. Can I ever look at the pouring monsoon rains without seeing Zinnia in the middle of a field, face upturned like a blade of grass reaching for the sun? Zinnia hopscotching in puddles, splashing her legs just as the rain was splashing her above. Zinnia standing under a tree giggling in delight as the rain trickled through the leaves onto her skin. Rain under the trees was greener, she told us, and cooler. The first crack of thunder, the first drop of rain-these were the luxuries she awaited avidly year round. The harder the rain fell the more she enjoyed it, raising her arms to the skies as if demanding to be made love to. We thought she was plain crazy.
It happened on one of those strange monsoon days, when belly heavy with torrential rain, the sky dozed silently overhead, dreaming dreams of an unborn spring. Sudden harsh thunder erupted out of a clear blue sky, the wind lashed out at everything within reach in unforeseen anger. Zinnia was just caught in the storm like everyone else.
All Zinnia’s mother saw was Zinnia stomp into the house, run to her room. She seemed muddier than usual and left a trail of rainwater down the hall. Her mother gave her time to change, then knocked on her door to call her for lunch. She was answered with the sounds of heartrending sobs. Not unfamiliar with the vagaries of her strange little girl, she waited at the door for a while and called Zinnia again. Zinnia screamed from inside, “No, no, no, go away, go away.” Zinnia’s mother sighed and left. It was just one of those days. Then gradually it came out. Zinnia had been raped.
At first we just knew that one day Zinnia didn’t come to school. Like any small town, our varsity campus loved having its nose in other people’s crotches like a dumpster dog and the news that the girl had gotten herself in trouble raced before the wind. By the end of the school day we all knew. I don’t remember how, or who told me or who got the news in the first place; it was just that by the time we walked out of school on our way home, instead of our regular giggling and fooling around we were all whispering. There were four of us who always walked home together. As we neared our turning, we saw a small group of the campus aunties standing in a circle. They all turned to watch as we walked towards them. Suddenly we all stopped. There was something in the way they were watching us, these women we had known all our lives, these women who were our mothers and our friends’ mothers. They were waiting.
Then one of them called out to us, and her voice sounded as coarse and raucous as a crow’s and as merciless. “Come here, girls, come this way.” There was no avoiding it; we moved towards them. They wore smiles as they watched us come closer, the same everyday smiles that we knew, but it was different today, as if instead of the usual thirty two they had snagged ten more teeth each from someone. “So how was school today?” they asked us in such sweet voices that it dried out our innards. Then started the questions. Did she have a boyfriend? Did any of the boys at school seem interested in her? Was this the first time something like this had happened? To her, to anyone? What had happened? Really? We stood there unable to get away, listening and listening. Our faces scarlet, our ears burning, it was worse than the time I had been caught by two neighbourhood boys when, unable to restrain myself, I had squatted down to pee beside a pile of bricks. What did we know, what would we tell, what was for sale? Roly-poly Anisa, famous for being a cry-baby to this day, suddenly burst into loud tears and bolted We stood there for a moment, watching the fat little girl stumble, fall, then get up to continue running; then with her desperate sobs and with the aunties’ screechy ‘stop her’ ringing in our ears we ran for our dear lives.
But Zinnia never budged. Because of the storm she had run into the bus stop, the one near the Arts Building. She had seen that there was a man there, but that was okay, people would be taking shelter from the storm wouldn’t they? She couldn’t see properly, her sight was blurred from the pounding rain and the thunder had frightened her. Before she had a chance to wipe her eyes, she was face down on the floor. She didn’t know who the man was. Someone grabbed her from behind, and held her down. She remembered the hoarse breathing of someone close to her ear. There may have been more men, she didn’t know. She didn’t know. When she awoke, she was alone. She never saw his face, never heard his voice. He had even tied the strap of her shalwar carefully in a neat little bow when he was done with her. He must’ve been a tidy man, disciplined, neat-a man who preferred order to chaos.
The lady doctor examined her and said there was evidence of fresh bruising ‘down there’. But that was all. There were no other signs of violence. Not a single mark anywhere on her body. As I’ve said, he must’ve been a tidy man. There was no way to tell who it had been. But the question remained. The brief details that Zinnia did provide aren’t important; what is important is that the town slowly and unequivocally reached the conclusion that it had to be one of us, one of our men. It had to be someone we knew. Ours wasn’t a regular town; there were walls all along the campus boundaries and there were guards all around to look out for ‘outsiders’. This vigilance had recently been tightened to limit ingress of the neighbouring villagers aiming to despoil the purity of our environs with their uneducated ways. We were an island of learning, higher degrees and prosperity in the surrounding darkness and we wanted no truck with the world around us. What was the probability that some ‘outsider’ had come in? It had to be one of us.
The fourth-class employees, responsible for the kind of things a decent community needed to function but would never dream of doing themselves, went through a hard time then. As the servant is the first to be suspected when something is stolen in the household, once the town reached the verdict that it was one of us, they were the natural choice to be suspected. A lot of the fourth-classers lived on campus without their families. Their wives and children lived at their village homes, while the men who worked here shared living quarters. This arrangement worked out well all around. It was cheaper for the men if their families lived in the village and it was cheaper for the university as they took up less space; four or five of them could be stuffed into a single apartment. Of course, there were a stubborn few who insisted on having their children attend the university school as they were entitled to, in the hopes of providing them with better education and opportunities than the village schools, but that was generally frowned upon. Those children were usually placed in section B in the classes, they rarely got major roles in the annual school plays, or any of the cultural or merit awards. They didn’t come to our birthdays either. We didn’t know if they had birthday parties. It was natural that the burden of suspicion fell on them. After all, they weren’t educated and there were so many of them…All those lower-class, uneducated men living together, who knows what they got up to in that part of the town?
Then someone suggested having a mass line up of the fourth-classers and have Zinnia identify the culprit. The two aunties who thought this up were so excited at the simple brilliance of the idea that they immediately set out to find Zinnia’s mother. By the time they neared Zinnia’s house, their number had grown to twelve or thirteen. This was such a wonderfully holy mission that no one they met on the way wanted to be left out. It was their civic duty. After all, if the man got away with it once, he might try it again. No one was safe. Of course, not one of them made the obvious point that Zinnia had never seen his face…they were too excited with their plan to be bothered with pesky little details like that.
Zinnia’s mother opened the door. She had lost weight in the past month and her face was all angles as if her skull had suddenly become too large for her skin. The excited aunties trilled and bubbled. She stood silent and motionless through it all. And then she laughed. There was such arid hunger in her laughter that it ate right into all the excitement and righteousness that the aunties had brought with them. She laughed again and said: “Why just the fourth-classers? What about the other men?” and damned if she didn’t shut the door slam bang right in their faces.
The aunties stood there in horrified silence, unsure of what to do. It was Pamela’s mother who broke the silence with a virtuous, “After all the girl has been through a lot, it would be sinful to make her face her attacker again. We couldn’t do that to her in her condition. We have to think of what’s good for her. We just have to be more careful, that’s all.” And with a sigh of relief, the others agreed. Of course, they were compassionate people, weren’t they? They didn’t want to distress the poor child. That was why they were dropping the idea of the line-up, despite it being such a wonderfully brilliant and foolproof idea. And after all, one had to consider the feelings of those people as well. They might feel offended that we thought of them this way, after all, one had to admit they were part of the community as well. But none of them could get those words out of their minds. That laughter, that look in her eyes, and those words she delivered to them as easily as a water snake glided into water took root and grew in their minds, flourishing and flowering in the dark. And then Zinnia’s mother did the unthinkable-she demanded that a line up be held, including the teachers and the officers. And their sons. To make it right, she demanded, and proper, the males of the whole community should be there. It needed to be done right. Everyone.
So the women all visited her. Once together. But then they came again, this time, one by one. Early in the morning, just after the men had left for the mosque to say the fazr prayers, or in the dead of afternoon, when the men were away at work and the other women lazed in bed. They came to her to ask her not to do this. For the sake of decency, for the sake of the girl, for the sake of the community. This was a can of worms, they told her, that better not be opened. By anybody. They were all in this together. What good would it do, after all. What was done was done. They had to think of the future now, Zinnia’s future. After all, if they ripped the community apart like this, they couldn’t possibly live here anymore. And where would they go with this daughter of theirs? The community had so far stuck together, not allowing this to get into the papers or get the police involved, but once that feeling of being in this together was broken, how could they expect this silence to continue? The community was important, they told her, the community must go on.
This was about the time they found out that Zinnia was pregnant.
With that news, all the fight left Zinnia’s mother. She walked around doing the cooking, taking care of the house, looking after her daughter, her husband, but it was as if she had fallen asleep years and years ago and had just forgotten to wake up and had failed to notice that she was still asleep.
Zinnia stopped coming to school. Perhaps today it would have been easier for her; surely someone would have suggested getting rid of the thing, and it would be done in a blink of an eye. But back then, back there, what was done was done, what had to be, would be. None of us went to visit Zinnia. Most of our parents forbid us point-blank to enter that house. My mother told me it might be a good idea not to go around their house for a couple of months: “I don’t think Zinnia will be in the mood to play dolls with you, dear.” Play dolls! We’d never played dolls together. Ever.
There was talk of giving it away-the baby that was born. Talk of how this would be a burden and a constant reminder to the girl of how she had sinned or been sinned against. Whichever it was, neither was a good thing. But Zinnia’s mother wouldn’t hear of it. With the relentlessness that half-mad people have, she kept the baby and would explain to anyone who would listen (and then to those who wouldn’t), that God’s gift was God’s gift, and good or bad none had the right to refuse a gift-God did move in mysterious ways.
And what a beautiful baby it was when it arrived! All my life, I’ve felt slightly guilty because unlike other girls, I’ve always found newborn babies to closely resemble wriggling little maggots more than anything else. But despite my total lack of precocious maternal instincts so very common in all my friends, that was the one baby I ever saw that I wanted to pick up as soon as it was born. Pink and soft, wobbly little head and dark eyes that looked at you with a vision as clear and strong as sunlight after the first monsoon rains. It was Zinnia’s child.
Zinnia returned to school once the baby was born. We were in the middle of the school year, and the half-yearly exams were peeking over our shoulders. But the school board said it was okay for her and she wouldn’t have to sit for the half-yearlies ‘due to special considerations’. Our teachers took several of us, the good students, aside and asked us to help her catch up with her studies. But after a month, one by one, the parents visited the Principal. They were all very sympathetic towards the condition of the girl of course, but surely the school didn’t think that it was proper for the other children to mingle with Zinnia? After all their daughters were still ‘innocent’. Of course no one wanted to suggest that Zinnia not continue studying, after all we were all educated people (this was a university town wasn’t it?), but wouldn’t it be better if Zinnia continued her education from home? Surely, she herself would prefer that, away from the stares and taunts of the other children. (Pamela’s mother remarked, Children can be so cruel sometimes!) And anyway, exams were only a few months away, so it could hardly make much difference to her. Our class-teacher did argue that Zinnia in particular needed the classroom time as she had missed so many months, but the Vice Chancellor’s wife was among one of the concerned parents and of course that was that. Zinnia stopped coming to school. Again.
Private tuition was arranged for her. The best of our teachers, even those who did not give private lessons to children, agreed to tutor her. My mother offered to place me with Zinnia, to keep her company. But Zinnia’s mother said, “That’s okay. She’ll have to be alone from now on; let her get used to it.” And she smiled with all her teeth. Zinnia’s mother smiled a lot those days.
That baby was the pet of the campus. When they found out that she couldn’t breastfeed the baby because the milk wouldn’t come, why it was as if all the children in the campus were starving. In the end, one of the younger aunties who had had a baby just a few months before Zinnia, regularly donated some of her own milk. The first birthday I remember, the whole damn town dressed up, it was like Eid or something. And the gifts! The food! She was like a war baby, said Pamela’s mom. And everyone agreed and said what a brilliant notion that was, how perceptive! Of course, Baby was like a war baby, goodness knows there were plenty of those after the Liberation War. Of course, a few of the younger kids got spanked for insisting on knowing what a war baby was, but yes, that was the perfect idea.
Baby grew up the most loved and most wanted. There was no door ever shut to her and nothing that we wouldn’t do for her. It was ours, we felt. Our baby, our darling. We were her mother and father and sister and brother. We were everyone and everything. And we fed Baby cakes and candy, clothed Baby in wondrous clothes as if she were a flower or a fairy. Zinnia’s mother looked on with a vacant smile.
Zinnia died the first day of the monsoon. For the first time in two and a half years she had sat at the window watching the rain pour. Then when there was a brief lull in the steady pour she went and played with Baby. For a while, the soft cooing of the child-mother and the delighted squeaks and giggles of the baby lit up the house. Zinnia went into the dining room and smiled at her mother, asked her what was for tea. She placed Baby in her mother’s lap and said, “Hold her, mother, I’ll just take a quick look at the sky.” Then she was gone. Baby was almost two when Zinnia died. Whether she committed suicide or whether she just slipped and fell from the sixth floor rooftop in a moment of absentmindedness was a question we all considered, but magnanimous as usual, we decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. The lady doctor gave a natural death certificate. No clouds darkening her death, she was buried in a regular graveyard. And we wept for a few days. She was, after all, one of us. Almost.
And we watched Baby. We watched as Baby grabbed her toes for the first time, smiled for the first time, sat up and fell down, crawled through our hallways and then tottered down the streets. We listened as Baby cooed and then tried out words on her tongue and sang her first song. We rushed to comfort her when Baby cried and laughed in delight when Baby grew angry because her toes wouldn’t come to her mouth to be nibbled on. And we watched. And we whispered. That crooked smile Baby gave sometimes, wasn’t it a little like Pamela’s dad? Did you notice how Baby shook her head after sneezing? Exactly what Meena used to do when she was three years old. And where on earth did Baby get that nose from anyway? Neither Zinnia nor her parents had a nose like that! And so Baby grew older among smiles and whispers.
Baby grew up and went to school, in the campus, and then college. Everyone from the teachers to students was always nice to the child. Except for the occasional playground scuffle where taunts of haram to be sung out by one innocent voice and to be followed by the gleeful sadistic chorus of zadiiiii would be heard, or the chanting Where’s your daddy then, where’s your mommy? In college, Baby was in demand with the boys-somehow they seemed to think that it would be easier ‘getting it on’ with Baby; after all her morals would be looser than the rest of the girls wouldn’t they? And if Baby succumbed once or twice to heartbreak… well, that happened to young people at that age and we never got to hear about it.
And then we went on our own ways, to different universities, different lives. Some of us were married off; some were allowed to complete our studies. When we did talk of Zinnia, among ourselves, or with our mothers or the aunties, we all agreed that it was a good thing that Zinnia was gone. She would have been the same age as any of us today and what would she be? No marriage proposals would ever arrive for her, for no matter how pretty a girl she was, nor how charming, where was the man in this world, or where was the family that could accept her along with accepting the existence of Baby? Of course, although it would remain a stain for her, we would all do our best to see that Baby made something of herself, that Baby got somewhere in this world. For Baby was ours, wasn’t she?
Life went on for all of us. We felt so good and holy about ourselves; there was something so sacred in our magnanimity. How we had managed to put aside petty mindedness and allowed a bastard child into our hearts and homes. It didn’t matter that Baby’s smile made some of us uneasy, that Baby’s frown made us look at one another with doubt. It didn’t matter that when we were children our mothers told us not to play with Zinnia. It didn’t matter. The undercurrent of suspicion and derision that freely flowed was never allowed to the fore and therefore to our minds it did not exist-or so we told ourselves.
Except sometimes, as we huddled inside our houses, we would glance at and then look away from a lonely little figure standing motionless in the pouring rain, as if accepting the caress of the mother she never knew, arms held out high, face upturned, yearning towards we knew not what. The air we breathed somehow felt colder on those days.