A GOLDEN AGE
Every year, Rehana held a party at Road 5 to mark the day she had returned to Dhaka with the children. She saved her meat rations and made biryani. She rented chairs and called the jilapi-wallah to fry the hot, looping sweets in the garden. There was a red-and-yellow tent in case of rain, lemonade in case of heat, cucumber salad, spicy yoghurt. The guests were always the same: her neighbour Mrs Chowdhury and her daughter Silvi; her tenants, the Senguptas, and their son, Mithun; and Mrs Rahman and Mrs Akram, better known as the gin-rummy ladies.
So, on the first morning of March, as on the first morning of every March for a decade, Rehana rose before dawn and slipped into the garden. She shivered a little and rubbed her elbows as she made her way across the lawn. Winter still lingered on the leaves and in the wisps of fog that rolled over the delta and hung low over the bungalow.
She dipped her fingers into the rosebush, heavy with dew, and plucked a flower. She held it in her hand as she wandered through the rest of the garden, ducking between the wall — hugging jasmine and the hibiscus, crossing the tiny vegetable patch that was giving them the last of the season’s cauliflower, zigzagging past the mango tree, the lemon tree, the shouting-green banana tree.
She looked up at the building that would slowly, over the course of the day, cast a long shadow over her little bungalow. Shona. She could still hear Mrs Chowdhury telling her to build the new house at the back of her property. ‘Such a big plot,’ she’d said, peering out of the window; ‘you can’t even see the boundary it’s so far away. You don’t need all that space.’
‘Should I sell it?’
Mrs Chowdhury snapped her tongue. ‘Na, don’t sell it.’
‘Build another house.’
‘What would I do with another house?’
‘Rent, my dear. Rent it out.’
Now there were two gates, two driveways, two houses. The new driveway was a narrow passage that opened into the back of Rehana’s plot. On the plot stood the house she had built to save her children. It towered above the bungalow, its two whitewashed storeys overlooking the smaller house. Like the bungalow, it had been built with its back to the sun.
The house was nearly ten years old now, and a little faded. Ten monsoons had softened its edges and drawn meandering, old-age seams into the walls.
But every day, as Rehana woke for the dawn Azaan, or when she went to put the washing in the garden, or when, after bathing, she fanned out her long hair on the back of a veranda chair, Rehana looked at the house with pride and a little ache.
It was there to remind her of what she had lost, and what she had won. And how much the victory had cost.