Little away in the south of Adampur village in Midnapur district of West Bengal, there is a small bazaar of half a dozen shops. There is an old banyan tree little away from these shops with its ropes hung like matted hair of an old maid. Next to the banyan tree is a Muslim cemetery and in between there is a thatched hut. Zeenat lives in that hut.
People around say Zeenat is a mentally retarded and unpredictable. It is difficult to guess her age for she is unkempt, malnourished and shabbily dressed.
Zeenat enters the cemetery everyday and sits near a grave for hours together. That is the grave of her mother. She dusts it everyday and whenever she gets hold of wild flowers or incense sticks, she lays it on the grave.
There are several stories about Zeenat. That she has mastered a jinnee who obeys her orders, she can cure any disease, make you rich overnight or bring miseries to you in seconds if you annoy her. No one has seen it happening but people of Adampur treat her cautiously out of fear.
“Aren’t you afraid of living alone near a cemetery and that too under a banyan tree?”
“Isn’t it true that you talk to ghosts living on the banyan tree?”
“Do you control a jinnee, what if he killed you?”
People ask her questions but most of the times, she smiles without answering them. She moves around to adjoining villages and comes back by nightfall to her hut.
Zeenat never enters Adampur which was once her village. A faint smile comes on her face at the mention of Adampur.
Let’s go back a little.
Murad Ali, Zeenat’s father belonged to Adampur. He worked as a carpenter in the government ordnance factory in Midnapur and stayed there in a room of a dilapidated house at the end of a narrow street. An open drain divided the house and a garbage dump. The stink from the drain and the garbage was strong enough for a new comer to collapse but Murad Ali like others had got accustomed to it. Since his parents lived in the village, Murad Ali would come to Adampur on week-ends to meet them and his wife Zameela.
Murad Ali was fond of music. He had acquired an old harmonium and a set of tabla, the percussion instruments, which he kept at his village for there was hardly any time to play them while in Midnapur. When in his village, he would often invite his folks and friends to his place and organize musical evenings. It cost him dearly but Murad Ali liked to show off. He liked people talking about him and his initiatives.
Zeenat was Murad Ali’s first child from his wife Zameela who was now expecting a second one. Zameela was very frail and weak but there was hardly any rest for her from the house-hold cores. Despite her best efforts, her mother in law was never happy and cursed her all hours of the day. And the worst was that with her indifferent health and fatigued body she was not able to satisfy Murad Ali who had an insatiable desire for sex.
“What for is a woman if she can not keep her man happy? I toil day and night for the family and come here for only one night and she makes hundred excuses,” he would tell his mother. His parents could neither defy his authority nor disagree with him. Zameela was thus coaxed and cursed by her mother-in-law and pushed in to the small room where Murad Ali would be waiting for her. With sufficient liquor and good meal and fired by the fantasy of nautch girls and film actresses that he would see in Midnapur, his libido would be escalated to the peak.
For Zameela it would be another submission forced on her. Murad Ali would neither be in a position nor interested in knowing her woes.
It was one of the weekends when Murad Ali had come to Adampur. Like any other night Murad Ali was waiting for Zameela and cursing her for delaying in coming to him. And when she did come, he preyed on her like a blood hound, unaware that Zameela was soaked in blood and had fainted.
Having scattered his seeds Murad Ali was soon snoring. After a while when Zameela got to her senses, she felt choked and thirsty. She managed to drag herself along the floor and reached the kitchen for water.
By day break, Zameela had severe pain and high fever. Everyone in the family was worried for she was in the advanced stage of pregnancy. The mid-wife was called who saw her condition and told Murad Ali’s mother to put her in the barn and boil some water. Murad Ali was upset and went away to neighbour’s house. Zameela suffered cruciating pains for another three hours before the mid-wife could press out the baby, a dead one. There was mourning in the house, Murad Ali left for his job same day.
Zameela was drained off of all energy if there was any left in her. She was pale and sick, could hardly walk and fever never left her. Her mother-in-law found her a burden. For next five months, Murad Ali neither went to his village nor did he send any money. “I have to repay the creditors for the loan I had taken for my last visit,” he had written to his father.
Then a word came from a relative who also worked in the ordnance factory that Murad Ali had kept a woman in his house. This was a great shock for the old parents, not as much for Zameela’s sake but for the fact that Murad Ali was their only bread earner. It was obvious that with a woman in his house Murad Ali would not support them.
The family discussed the matter and decided that Zameela and her six year old daughter, Zeenat should go to Murad Ali and plead with him.
Murad Ali was enraged to see his wife and daughter.
“Are you my family members or my enemies? I would have come to village sooner or later. Couldn’t you have a little patience? What if I lose my job?” He shouted at them.
The poor father and Zameela realized that there could have been such possibility and that it was indeed a hasty step on their part. They apologised.
“Please forgive us. We were so worried, not hearing from you for so long,” Zameela pleaded.
“Shut up you bitch or I kick you right here. I know it must have been at your instigation, the worthless female,” Murad Ali fumed giving Zameela a dirty look. Then muttering curses at Zameela he gave a ten rupee note to his father and said, “Have tea and wait here,” and then returned to his work.
Walking to Murad Ali’s place in the evening was not comfortable either. They had taken only a cup of tea whole day. Zameela could hardly stand on her feet which irritated Murad Ali further more. He slapped Zameela with such a force that she fell on the ground and rolled over.
“You bitch, you can’t even stand on your feet but devil in you brings you miles away from home.”
Zameela had no courage to argue and no strength to stand. After a little while, she caught Zeenat’s hand to stand and then used her shoulder to help her walk.
For Zeenat it was the first glimpse of manly authority over a trembling frail woman.
Nadira, the new woman in Murad Ali’s place was expecting her man. But it took her sharp mind fraction of a second to place the persons accompanying him. She was furious. “Look, either these urchins stay with you or I stay. I can not stand them even for a minute.”
Nadira, a free lance sex worker was young and voluptuous and a skilled seductress. Murad Ali was crazy about his new find and therefore wanted the matter to be decided at the soonest possible. He promised to send money to his father regularly and suggested that they return to Adampur the next morning.
The old man knew there was no veracity in such promises. “Son, your mother and I both love you very much. You are our only son, and our only hope. But we are not going to live forever. Take care of your wife and your daughter in the manner you want and leave us on the mercy of the Almighty.” Then raising his hands towards the sky, he said, “I want to take the night bus for the village.”
Murad Ali was flabbergasted. His pleas with his father to stay back or at least have his dinner failed.
“I will not have a morsel of food in this house. I am leaving this very moment for the village.” The old man was adamant.
Murad Ali was not prepared for such a turn of events. “Abbu, I can not drive Nadira out of this house, I have had Nikah with her. But if you insist, Zameela and Zeenat can stay here and I will send you money every month as in the past.”
The old parent said nothing. He touched Murad Ali’s shoulder and left his son’s place.
Murad Ali did care for his parents. It was true that he was indifferent towards Zameela who was sans any appeal. Nadira on the other hand was young and sensuous. Murad Ali was in the state of dilemma and he wanted to satisfy all of them but for his limited income. It indeed pained him that he had abandoned his old parents.
It was decided that Zameela and Zeenat will sleep in the kitchen and will not disturb Murad Ali and Nadira who would sleep in the room. But even after a week, the two women could not agree on the division of house-hold chores. Zameela was still in a very bad shape and Nadira was infuriated at the idea of cooking for the wife and daughter of her husband.
“Look, I am here only for your sake and not these wretched women. If they have to live here, they should share the work. Besides, your income is not good enough to feed so many mouths. This sick woman does nothing but sleep. I can find a job for Zeenat. What is the arm if it supplements the family income?”
Murad Ali’s first reaction was that it was good suggestion. But Zameela raised hackles. “How can you leave an innocent young girl to work amongst unknown people? Wait for a few days. I would then take up some job.”
Nadira saw her move falling. She started shouting at the top of her voice using filthiest abuses for Zameela and Zeenat.
“May Allah’s curse fall on you. You useless female, you and your daughter are a burden on Murad Ali. Why don’t you go to a brothel along with your daughter and leave us in peace.”
This was far from what Murad Ali had envisaged. Pouncing at Nadira he slapped her with such a force that she fell on the floor, blood oozing out of her mouth.
“You bitch, how you dare say such vile things for my daughter and wife. You bitch, instead, you return to the brothel, the place you belong to. Get out of my house right now or I will kill you.”
Young Zeenat stood at the corner of the room, shaken and traumatized.
Nadira left Murad Ali same evening. “I am leaving. But you, son of a bitch, you will come to me on your knees and seek my forgiveness. And I will see that these whores land up in a brothel.” Nadira left with a warning.
Next day when Murad Ali got ready for his factory, he threw twenty rupees at Zameela and asked her to get some rations and vegetables. “Don’t wait for me,” he added before going out of the house.
Murad Ali did not return that evening. Nor did he return the evening after. Zameela was scared to no ends. She did not know what to do and she didn’t know anyone in Midnapur. Nor could she trust any stranger with young Zeenat by her side. She didn’t know where to look for Murad Ali. Any thing could have happened to him. Frightening thoughts were crowding her mind.
“Allah, the all merciful, have pity on us, the helpless in this city of unknowns.”
And then she remembered the mazaar of Peer Sabir Ali Sah out side the village cemetery.
“I will offer a chaddar at your mazaar when my husband returns home safely. I, the sinner seek your mercy. Take my life but return him to his family,” she begged of the peer.
It was the fourth day but Murad Ali had not shown up. This failed Zameela’s courage. She had not eaten all these days despite Zeenat pleading with her. “Not until your Abbu returns,” and then waiting for a while she added, “We shall go to the bus stand tomorrow and take a bus to our village. I want to offer a prayer at the mazaar of the peer.”
The women, overcome by fear were huddled together with the room bolted from inside. It was mid night. Zameela was lying wide awake, her mind restless with all kinds of apprehensions. Suddenly there was loud thumping on the door. Zeenat woke up and shrieked. It was Murad Ali shouting at Zameela asking to open the door.
Zameela thanked the almighty for returning her prayers. “You are the merciful. Now give me strength that I do not go back on my promise.”
That fateful night young Zeenat saw her estranged father return home after four days in a drunken state. He was abusing her mother for ruining his life. And then suddenly he pushed Zeenat aside and dragged her mother in to the room and raped her.
It was a horrifying spectacle for Zeenat.
Zameela had succumbed but she could not bear the beastly ferocity. She lay on the floor of the room unable to cover her half naked body. Zeenat wanted to cry but she could not. She sat there frozen out of fear. A few minutes later, Zeenat saw her father snoring. The beast in him was satiated.
Zeenat came over to her mother and covered her body with her clothes. Suddenly, she noticed her mother gasping for breath. Her throat was parched, perhaps she wanted some water. Zeenat ran out and brought some water from the pitcher and poured it in to her mother’s mouth.
Before leaving for work next day Murad Ali threw a twenty rupee note at Zeenat and told her to get the grocery from the nearby shop. He didn’t bother to check the condition of his beleaguered wife.
Little Zeenat went out and brought a tonga and took her mother to the bus stand and then helped her take the bus to Adampur. Late in the afternoon they reached Adampur.
Zameela by this time was totally exhausted. She looked at her daughter with hazy eyes. Zeenat helped her mother get down and brought a glass of water for her.
Zameela took a sip and with great difficulty she managed to say, “Allah listened to my prayers. Tell your dadu to put a chaddar on the mazaar of Peer Sabir Ali Sah.”
Those were Zameela’s last words. Zeenat was dazed d as the shackled soul was emancipated.
Zeenat has not entered Adampur after the burial of her mother. She doesn’t remember the number of years passed since then. Her grandparents are no more and Murad Ali they say is living with Nadira at Midnapur.
Zeenat likes to live in isolation. Sometimes when in lighter mood, she says, “I am comfortable in my hut and I am not scared of ghosts, they harm no one. In fact, I live here because I am scared of men. They are mean and ghastly.”