In the crowded Kamalapur Railway Station, Arunima could be found wearing heavy make-up and gaudy salwar kameez. She’d vehemently clap her hands, pursue passengers, and collect money. As odd as it may seem, this was her vocation. Arunima was transgender, a hijra, an outcast, a pariah.
In the train station, she’d often sing Rabindra Sangeet when she wasn’t asking for money from the passengers. If she felt elated, she’d even prance to her melodious tunes. Her movements were graceful. The way she swayed her waist made the other hijras envy her.
One winter morning, except for a few stray dogs and a couple of slum children, Arunima was all by herself in the train station. There were no passengers either, so Arunima couldn’t start her work. To bide her time, Arunima puffed on a Derby and hummed on Bideshini.
Pressing the cigarette between her scarlet, quivering lips, Arunima stared into the fog before her. There was nothing, yet Arunima fixated her gaze toward the fog. After a while or so, Arunima heard the thumping of shoes, as if someone was pelting towards her. Almost abruptly, a dark, tall figure emerged from the whitening of the fog. Arunima shrieked and just when she was about to leap off from her seat, a middle-aged man thumped on the ground before her.
He was gasping for breath and as he did so, froth started to emerge from the corners of his mouth. As much as she did not want to believe it, the man was dying. Arunima wrapped him up with her midnight blue shawl. She woke the slum children from their sleep and asked them to help her drag the dying stranger to the entrance of Kamalapur Railway Station. By then the stray dogs woke up as well and goggled at the apprehensive scene occurring before them.
After arriving at the entrance, Arunima thanked the children and halted a CNG. ‘To Karwan Bazar, mama!’, Arunima instructed the plump driver in a panic-stricken voice. Thankfully, Dhaka streets are empty in the mornings, so the driver was able to reach the destination in a very short time. Having reached Karwan Bazar, he pulled off in front of a dreary, five-storied building. It was where Arunima lived.
Both the driver and Arunima hoisted the stranger up to the third floor. Upon reaching her apartment, Arunima made the stranger lay in her dingy bedroom. She drew the floral patterned, magenta-coloured curtains so that the stranger could breathe fresh air. After clearing the froth off the stranger with a sewn napkin, Anurima went to the kitchen. The kitchen was half the size of the bedroom. It had a single stove, a faded wooden cabinet, a frying pan hanging on a hook in the ceiling, a ceramic bowl, and a tin glass beside the basin.
As fast as she could, Arunima prepared a hot bowl of chicken soup for the dying stranger. She took the bowl to the bedroom and discovered him lying on the floor, blood spewing from his mouth. Arunima felt helpless but she was determined to help him. She hoisted him up on the bed again and sprinkled a few drops of warm water on his face. He woke with a start with an eye still half-shut.
‘Where am I?’ he inquired, alarmingly. His sight was hazy, so he couldn’t properly perceive Arunima. She spooned the soup into his mouth and he obediently gulped it down his throat. Arunima couldn’t help but feel miserable for the man. The way he was devouring the soup told her that he was starving for quite a long time. After he was done, Arunima made his head rest on the pillow. He fell asleep at once.
It took a long time for the stranger to wake up. As a matter of fact, he woke up in the afternoon of the next day. As soon as the man woke up, he was startled to find a hijra slumbering on the floor before him. He thought he had been abducted. Without interrupting Arunima’s sleep, the man attempted an escape. But he had fallen head first on the floor, waking Arunima up from her sleep.
‘What on earth are you doing? You aren’t properly fit yet to walk,’ Arunima said, while heaving him up again on the bed. She didn’t realize that he was trying to elope and the man was quiet with fear of being harassed by a hijra. ‘You have been asleep for a long time, you know,’ Arunima said with a benign smile on her face while putting a blanket over him. She was struggling to be as amiable as she could. It has been a long time since she normally conversed with anyone other than her own kind.
‘What’s your name?’ Arunima inquired with the strained friendliness almost visible in her tone.
‘Umayr’ the man replied under his breath. He was still too feeble to talk. By now, Umayr realized that he wasn’t abducted. As a matter of fact, he was far from being abducted. He was being cared for. ‘Thank you’ Umayr murmured. Arunima felt a strange delight in herself, the kind of which she never felt before. No one has ever expressed gratitude to her, so she didn’t know what to say. Instead, she smiled her benign smile.
Umayr looked around the dingy room. His sight was still fuzzy from being frail, but the blazing sunlight helped him look around more distinctly. He saw a copy of Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali covered in dust and reposed on an oval, wooden table. An imperceptible, crunching noise indicated that termites are feeding on the insides of the table. The curtains were still pulled away. In the far corner of the room, there was a retro cassette player. It too was covered in dust. On the ground below, there was a dusty tower of cassettes of Bangla classics. On the wall above, there was a shabby poster of Satyajit Ray’s Charulata.
‘I’ve watched it countless times,’ Arunima said, noticing Umayr looking at the poster of Charulata.
‘It’s one of Ray’s finest,’ Umayr said.
‘Charu is a timeless character. Such poise yet so poignant. Don’t you think there is a Charu within all of us?’ Arunima said with a vacant expression on her face as if she was lost in the far end of a cave of suppressed memories.
‘I very much think so,’ Umayr replied in accordance with Arunima’s apparent grief.
‘What’s your story, Umayr?’ Arunima asked while shaking her head to draw herself away from her musings. Umayr was silent. His eyes reflected the persona of a man who’s striving to procure the best vocabulary to describe a difficult situation. After a long, subdued silence, Arunima placed her hands on Umayr’s, which were still cold and bony.
‘I… I…escaped from home,’ Umayr said, with great endeavour. ‘It’s not my fault. It’s, it’s not. I couldn’t take it anymore. I couldn’t,’ Umayr continued, tears streaming down his pale cheeks. Arunima pressed his hands more tightly. ‘It was too much, it was. Yes, yes, I started taking drugs. I wanted to kill myself. And why shouldn’t I? It was too much to bear. I never expected Aditi to leave. She promised she wouldn’t. But she did, anyway.’
A part of the blanket was drenched with Umayr’s dropping tears.
‘And then my family. It wasn’t home anymore, it, it wasn’t. They loathed me for who I became – a drug addict. I brought dishonour to the family, they said. It was torture. I couldn’t take it anymore. I sought peace, I sought death, and I escaped…’
Umayr couldn’t finish his sentence. His throat was dry. Arunima handed him a glass of water, which he gulped down immediately.
The silence ensued again. Umayr looked down at his scrawny hands with an empty expression. Without contemplating what’s right or what’s wrong, without giving any thought to the consequences of the unpredictable society, Arunima wrapped her arms around Umayr. It felt like the right thing to do. The two stayed like that, embracing each other until the blazing sun gave way to the crisp winter evening.
Over the next few days, Arunima and Umayr’s relationship deepened. Umayr looked at Arunima as his caring sister and addressed her as Di, while Arunima cared for him as her brother. In the mornings, when the streets were empty, Arunima and Umayr would go on a stroll in Ramna Park. A few passing pedestrians would throw dubious stares at them while they rode on a rickshaw but they knew better than to pay attention. On their way, they would see a flock of crows cawing into the brisk morning air. During their strolls in the park, the soles of their feet would get damp from the dew appearing on the surface of the grass, which they crunched on their way. If the mornings were too frosty, they would sit on a bench in the park and puff on Derby, the smoke of which made them feel cosy.
One day, Umayr found a shattered mirror on the leaves strewn across ground of the park. He picked up a shard with great curiosity. Upon scrutinizing the reflection, Umayr was taken aback. He saw that his hair was dishevelled and that his cheekbones began to emerge, making him look skeletal; his body was thin as a rake and his eyes were pale. ‘I have destroyed myself, Di’ Umayr said in a great state of melancholy. It was true. The drugs had ruined the once handsome structures of his face, making him look ghoulish.
Arunima took the shard of glass from his hand and threw it away. ‘You are my brother, Umayr, and know that you are the most handsome person I have ever seen,’ Arunima said with such firmness that it was clear that she meant what she said. She took Umayr’s hand and began strolling to the never-ending curves of the park. It was her effort to make Umayr forget about the predicaments of life.
The days passed with gusts of cold wind. Arunima made Umayr eat as many nutritious foods as possible. But to no avail, Umayr was still gaunt. She mostly relied on her chicken soup, which she prepared with a special blend of herbs. It was her medicine for all sickness, however, it wasn’t quite working for Umayr. And she couldn’t find a doctor either for hijras are often met with contempt in society. And Umayr wouldn’t go without Arunima.
Other than her effort for keeping Umayr well-fed, Arunima also tried to keep his mood elated. On Umayr’s 24th birthday, Arunima cooked a succulent dinner for him. She kneaded dough to make butter naan and kindled tandoori, which was marinated with minced garlic and onion, cayenne pepper and garam masala. She also prepared raita by seasoning the yoghurt with cucumber and mint. A bottle of Coca-Cola was bought to abate the jhal.
After spreading a tattered carpet on the floor, the two sat down and dined in gaiety. While munching on a leg piece, Umayr thanked Arunima for making the effort to make the day special for him. Arunima said nothing but she smiled her benign smile. Umayr noticed that she bore a certain melancholy in her heart. He was meaning to ask for a long time but he couldn’t get the opportunity to do so. Umayr knew about how most hijras are abandoned by their families and later regarded as pariahs in the society. This in turn leads to their joining of the hijra community, where they are taught the art of their occupation.
“What’s your story, Di?” Umayr inquired, haltingly. Arunima looked up from her plate, which had a half eaten naan, and into Umayr’s curious, unflinching pair of eyes. The benign smile gradually faded away. But Arunima wanted to tell her story, her miseries, her laments, which she suppressed in the deepest corners of her heart for so, so long.
‘My mother said I was born a beautiful baby. Such beauty was rare in boys, many claimed. As a child, I was provided with singing lessons. Yes, that’s where I picked up my adoration for Rabindra Sangeet. His notion of romanticism enchants me, truly. But I was only taught to sing and not dance. I remember the first time I attempted to dance. It was a sunny afternoon, Maa and Baba were away, and I played Aloker Ei Jhorna Dharaion Baba’s old gramophone. Oh, I tell you, Umayr, I never felt such ecstasy in my entire life. I performed kathak, bharatanatyam and odissi just by myself. I knew I did well. I felt it in my soul, Umayr.
Then suddenly the music stopped. Baba was standing beside the gramophone. He smashed the vinyl into pieces. Maa was weeping her silent tears. I knew from their faces that their worst nightmare came to life. My true identity was their worst nightmare!
By the time I was fifteen, my identity was becoming more and more apparent. I was locked in my bedroom without any contact to the outside world because to everyone, I was a hijra, a pariah. I hummed many Tagore Songs just to keep my soul alive and to pass my time, I read and re-read the Geetanjali. In those dark, doleful days, that book was my Bible.
Then one day, the locked door was open. Baba and Maa stood in the doorway, their faces heavy with regret. I thought they’d finally accept me for who I am and not what they want me to become. But I was a fool to think something like that. They came to throw me out of the house. They said they had had enough of me. It didn’t take much effort to throw me out. I remember standing in the entrance, staring for the very last time at my house, where I spent my childhood in the arms of who I believed were my parents.
I left with nothing but the copy of Geetanjali for it was my solace, my only accomplice in the forlorn days. I remember walking for miles on end until I discovered my own kind. I met my guru, who taught me how to survive with my identity. I made friends, I made enemies yet I was lonely.
Sometimes we don’t realize who we really are to the world, to ourselves. And that lack of understanding puts us in a state of sheer isolation. We spend too much time finding our place in this world that in the end, we discover that there is no place at all. We are all vagabonds in this world.
You know, Umayr, I sought my purpose in this forsaken world. I didn’t find any.’
Arunima was not weeping like Umayr did when he shared his own story. He understood that all her tears had dried up a long, long time ago. But he also knew that there was still a pang in Arunima’s warm heart, which left her confused and strayed. Umayr held Arunima’s hand and squeezed it tightly. Arunima smiled once again and kissed Umayr’s forehead. ‘You are my Di,’ Umayr muttered as he rested his head on Arunima’s lap, ‘and that’s your sole purpose in this forsaken world.’
The next morning, Arunima and Umayr went out a bit late. They felt heavy from last night’s dining. But they wouldn’t miss out on their daily walking routine. It was almost at the end of winter, so it was already sunny when they arrived at Ramna Park. The park was already filled with many pedestrians by the time they arrived. This disconcerted them a little, since there were too many unwavering stares this time. Of course, they tried to ignore them but the gazes fell heavy upon them.
Turning a corner in the park, Umayr stopped dead in his tracks, apparently gazing at the crooked branches of a tree. Though utterly ordinary to the eye, they gave Arunima the ominous premonition of some phantom gradually approaching. She was just about to convey this to Umayr, when she noticed his wholly vacant eyes. He abruptly collapsed to the ground and began shuddering.
Froth appeared on the corners of Umayr’s mouth, he was having a seizure. Terrified by his violently twitching body, Arunima screamed for help: ‘Save my brother! I beg of you! Please, save him!’, but her cries fell on deaf ears. The pedestrians far off dwelt only on what their eyes could see, and they saw a hijra attacking someone, someone of their own kind. Some soon rushed to the scene, eventually dragging Arunima away from Umayr’s convulsing body.
They threw punches at her; kicked her, while others hurled stones. Arunima repeated ‘Please! Save my brother!’, but to the crowd Arunima was a persona non grata, a hijra, an outcast, a pariah and she attacked one of them. She deserved no mercy. Her forehead began to bleed. Her skin was scathed. Her gaudy Kameez was torn in places. Someone yelled, ‘You are dead, you bloody hijra,’ but it didn’t matter to her.
She was beaten until her mind blanked, losing consciousness. The last thing she had seen was Umayr being carried away by a few people. And the last thing she muttered was his name, her brother’s name – ‘Umayr’.
Time passed by. Now raindrops fell on Arunima’s blood strewn face, waking her up with a start. A repugnant stench nauseated her, upon looking around she saw that she lay on a pile of garbage.
Her attackers left her in the filth to die. She tried to rise, but her feet didn’t allow her. She could feel some of her shattered and broken bones. Arunima clasped her hands in a silent prayer, with such effort that it were as if she were hauling a sack of stones up a steep rocky hill.
She may be a hijra, but today her hands were held together instead of one palm thumping on another. Her prayers had to be answered, for she was praying for Umayr, someone who unlike her, who is accepted in society, in religion and perhaps, even in eternity.
Feeling the damp cold sludge against the grazes of her skin, Arunima began to weep. Through her tears, through her gritted teeth, and through her devastation, she kept on muttering, ‘Save him. Please…’
Arunima’s hands then let loose and thumped on the pile of garbage. Her eyelids drooped. Arunima was no more.
In a hospital bed, Umayr woke up with tears streaming down his haggard face. In the darkness of his barely conscious mind, he knew he would never see Arunima again. Pressed onto his chest, he felt the face of a weeping woman. The scent of henna told him it was his mother. ‘I’m sorry, beta,’ she mumbled, ‘please, forgive us’, Behind the bed, stood his father, rigid, but just as sorry. Umayr barely reacted, his eyes occasionally veering off towards the foggy window.
How unusual to have rain during this time of winter, he thought to himself. Just as unusual to find someone like his Di, who may have finally found her place in this forsaken world.
AQUEB SAFWAN JASER is a Bangladeshi creative writer who appeared in an anthology titled ‘Ten Square: Hundred Word Stories From Bangladesh’ and The Elixir Magazine. Being a cinephile he also writes for High on Films. Currently, he is pursuing a degree in Marketing while working as a Content Writer.